Elliott Malamet

Psalm 12 – The Divine Word

Songs of Praise – A War Diary

Save [us?], God, for no one is pious anymore;
the faithful have vanished from humanity.
Everyone speaks falsely to their neighbor; they talk smoothly with their lips
but speak with a double heart.

May Hashem cut off all smooth lips and every tongue that boasts
Those who said, “With our tongues we will prevail;
our lips are with us—who is lord over us?”

“Because the plunder of the poor, because of the cry of the needy, I will now arise,” says Hashem. “I will grant them salvation.” God will speak concerning them.

The words of God are pure words, like silver refined, exposed to the world, like gold clarified seven times…You, God, will guard them; You will protect them forever from such a generation, where the wicked walk about on all sides, when baseness is exalted by the human race.

Dear David,

The very thing you bemoan is what people spend their lives trying to perfect – to “prevail with their tongues… to be smooth with their lips.” But you are not describing the skill of oratory, but rather the art of duplicity, leaving every interaction, every sentence, every look, fraught with peril. Because we often use speech to signal our virtues; our abilities; our correctness; our appropriateness; and most of all—both hidden and revealed at once–our ambitions and goals. Communication has become the embodiment of an ulterior purpose. For few are pious anymore. Where have the faithful gone?

My feeling though, perhaps naively, is that the faithful are all around, and the world still has genuinely pious souls, quietly picking up the broken shards, the click of their needles the angelic sound of daily mending. But we hear less about them, the better for others to soak up all the oxygen in the room and unleash a universe of noise.

To be sure, there is a lot of invocation currently of the value of silence, but no longer in a religious mode. The adage of Pirke Avot–“there is nothing better for [one] than silence—or in the Talmud–“Speech is worth one coin, but silence is worth two”–was always linked to the idea that speaking can lead to sin, a word that is shunned in our liberated world. Nowadays, silence is a form of secular therapy, a reaching out to nature and the sacredness of hearing the flowers, the sky, the world itself. Not that this is a bad thing; as the American thinker Matthew Crawford points out, there are so few spaces left to think these days, mostly because the marketplace would prefer us to lose our bearings. Today’s smooth tongues and gilded lips are mostly found on-line, organized around what Crawford calls “attention-getting technologies,” which direct us away from one another and onto some product, “a manufactured reality, the content of which is determined from afar by private parties that have a material interest in doing so…”

There is nowhere left to hide. Crawford offers many examples of the bombardment, from the annoying to the tragicomic: Dunkin’ Donuts interrupts people’s morning commutes by releasing donut scents from the ventilation systems of public buses in Seoul, South Korea, to alert passengers when they approach one of the chain’s locations. And although Crawford asserts that “just as clean air makes respiration possible, silence, in this broader sense, is what makes it possible to think,” he also concludes ruefully that “silence is now offered as a luxury good.”  The membrane between the private and the commercial has been so seamlessly ruptured that most of us don’t even realize that we are the object of the “sell” practically every waking moment. And the repercussions for regular human interaction, forget about intimacy, are disastrous. We do not seem to know how to talk to one another for longer than it takes to smell a donut.

“With tongues we will prevail.” Your tone is sardonic; still, “rough speech,” in the best sense, can promote love and support, moral clarity and human advancement. In the same way, there is silence which is nurturing and there is silence that is a stone wall. One of the real merits of silence is the ability to then “appreciate the notes,” something akin to the Japanese idea of “ma,” which roughly means “negative space,” the gap in between things. In his book, The Art of Looking Sideways, the late graphic designer Alan Fletcher observes that “Space is substance. Mallarmé conceived poems with absences as well as words. Ralph Richardson asserted that acting lay in pauses… Isaac Stern described music as `that little bit between each note – silences which give the form… The Japanese have a word (ma) for this interval which gives shape to the whole.”

The assault on silence, the inclination towards words and the smooth as silk knives hidden beneath and inside of them, is the rueful state of affairs that you confronted so long ago. Words have become betrayals, double agents, spies sent to corrupt meaning and destroy goodness. Many of us, in the present war of tunnels and hostages, of RPGs and IEDs and other abbreviations of destruction, have grown so weary of speech, of the endless media grinding which leaves truth and context and subtlety reduced to dust.

In the end, as you suggest, maybe there is only one speech left besides “the cry of the needy”, and that is the divine word, something refined and purified and golden. Such words are hard to trace. Perhaps they require a different kind of hearing. Until then, as you so elegantly remind us, silence is the better option.

About the Author
Dr. Elliott Malamet is a Jewish educator living in Jerusalem. He has a doctorate in English literature and teaches Jewish Ethics and Philosophy at various Israeli institutions, including Yeshivat Machanaim, Pardes, and the Schechter Institute.