Using Our Words (Wisely)

Words are perhaps one of the most important inventions of humanity.

All of the advances in science and medicine have been made possible because we can use words to communicate to each other our own observations and discoveries. Each new revelation can be written down in words and preserved for future generations, adding another rung on the ladder of scientific progress.

We have used words to tell stories.

Sometimes these stories are fictions and fantasies – myths of great heroes overcoming harrowing obstacles to accomplish great victories or achievements. These stories inspire us to have courage, to be loyal, to have determination. They can teach us great moral lessons about being kind and honest, good and virtuous.

Other stories that we tell are real. They record critical moments in human history, personal experiences we wish to pass on to our children or future generations, or stories about our ancestors. We can tell others about mistakes we have made so they can avoid making those same mistakes themselves. Words can describe how others have figured out clever new solutions to simple or complex problems in life: how to cook food, design clothing, build homes and fashion furnishings to put in them, or create tools to do all of these things.

We can use words to write beautiful poetry, to tell someone how much we love them, to offer encouragement and hope.

Words have made humanity the unsurpassed rulers of all life on Earth, enabled us to travel to the moon, and to reach for the stars.

What a gift! What a blessing! What a miracle language is for us!

And yet, so often we have used our words as weapons: to hurt and torment each other, to cause pain and anguish, to encourage division and discord, to embarrass and humiliate, or to stoke anger and resentment.

No wonder so many of the sins recited in our confessions on Yom Kippur deal with the abuse of the gift of language, the defilement of the most powerful of human tools: words.

With the inventions of the printing press, and then the typewriter, the photocopying machine, the fax machine, the word processor, the personal computer and finally the internet, the written word has become pervasive in human interactions. We are bombarded by millions and millions of written words every day.

With the inventions of the radio, the telephone, the television, the cellphone and cable TV networks, we are simultaneously bombarded by millions and millions of spoken words every day.

Sadly, what we decide to read and write, what we choose to hear and say, are not always words of love, encouragement or hope.

When we read or listen to the news, we tend to preselect a news source that we know will tell us what we already want to hear. We will get the talking points predigested for us so we will know how to interpret the events of the day in a way that fits our world view.

But the language used very often portrays people who think differently as evil. Not just wrong-headed. Not just naïve. Not just poorly informed. But really stupid, or backward, or just plain evil.

Because we now have literally hundreds of sources for news and information, and because we seek out sources that confirm our own biases, over the past few years, in particular, our language has caused deep and painful rifts among families and friends.

Political issues are no longer a matter of having a different perspective. They beg the question of whether you are on the side of goodness and virtue, or the side of evil and wickedness.

Our opinions are often shaped in terms that are brutal and uncompromising. Language has been marshalled to polarize our thinking into a simple binary choice – you are either in favor of something or opposed to it. You are either on the good side, the right side of an issue, or you are on the wrong side, the evil side.

The world we live in today is so contentious, so polarized that it has broken up some friendships. Families sometimes cannot be in the same room together.

As you might already know, we Jews are no strangers to arguments. Just the opposite. We have historically seemed to relish a good argument.

For 40 years of wandering in the desert, the Israelites would complain and argue with Moses. We have dozens of commentaries on the Torah that are filled with arguments trying to interpret the meaning of the words, the stories and the rules that shape our way of life. Virtually every page of Talmud is loaded with arguments that span generations of scholars debating any and every aspect of how to be a good Jew.

You could even say that Judaism rejoices in the fact that the Torah can be understood in many different ways – all at the same time. The Jewish expression for this idea is “shivi’im panim l’torah” – the Torah has 70 different faces, or facets. It is as if our Sages were saying that the Torah is like a diamond that sparkles and shines precisely because it has so many facets that reflect light any way you turn it. No single interpretation can capture all of its truth. Rather ultimate truth is found by combining all of the various ways of understanding the words.

You may remember the famous scene from Fiddler on the Roof when one person reads some bad news, another person answers him “Why should I care about the outside world? Let the outside world grow its own head.” And Tevye responds, “He is right, if you spit in the air, it lands in your face.” Then Perchik, the idealist, says “Nonsense, you cannot be blind to what is going on outside.” To which Tevye says: “He is right too.” And then the person who read the bad news in the first place complains to Tevye: “He is right and he is right? They cannot both be right!” And Tevye says, “You know, you are also right. Goodbye.”

But our Sages did have to come to agreements about most of our traditions – how to celebrate the holidays, how to keep a kosher home, the structure of our worship services, how to behave in business, and a whole host of other subjects. We are, after all, a religion of rules. And so even though they argued about anything and everything, they still found a way to remain civil and maintain a cohesive society. So how did they do it?

Well, first of all, their system of government was similar to ours. There was a legislature which also functioned as the Supreme Court. It was called the Sanhedrin and it was composed of 71 Sages or scholars of Jewish law and tradition. Matters of law were brought to the Sanhedrin for debate and discussion and then a vote would be taken and the majority opinion determined the law. And, similar to our Congress, the Sanhedrin had two main political parties that were followers of two different schools of thought. One originated with a scholar named Hillel and the other originated with a scholar named Shammai. The school of Hillel was always the majority party and so, when the votes were cast, the School of Hillel nearly always won.

But for our purposes today, there is a teaching found in the Talmud (Eruvin 13b) which gives a different explanation for why the opinion of Hillel’s party always won the debates. Perhaps it was answering the question: why was Hillel’s party the majority party? How did it manage to convince a majority of sages to its way of thinking?

According to this passage in the Talmud, the School of Hillel and the School of Shammai disputed for three years over whose view was correct in matters of Jewish law. And then a Voice from Heaven, a bat kol, announced that both views were the words of God but that the law was in accordance with the view of the school of Hillel. Why, the Talmud asks, if both views are the word of God, should the school of Hillel prevail in establishing the law? The answer given is because they were kind and modest. They studied both their own position and the position of the school of Shammai, and they cited the opposing view first even before their own.

From this passage we learn six valuable lessons about how to maintain civil conversations with people who disagree with us. And perhaps these lessons will also help us to be more persuasive and attract more people to our point of view. Let’s consider them one at a time.

First, the Voice from Heaven said both views were the words of God. We must at least try to hear what our friend is telling us when he is explaining his point of view. There is almost always at least an element of truth in what he is saying and we must first listen carefully to the message and try and understand the kernel of truth beneath it, even if we disagree about the conclusion. Acknowledge that truth to your friend. “I hear what you are saying, and this part makes sense to me. I agree with you on this.” Both views are “the word of God”. Both can have some measure of truth.

Second, be kind in answering your friend. Do not be nasty or resort to name-calling. Do not intentionally distort your friend’s position, making it sound crazy. I know that sometimes when we are confronted with a point of view that makes no sense to us, or seems callous or even reckless, we tend to get emotionally worked up and then we might be tempted to use language that only adds fuel to the fire.

Keep in mind that (hopefully) the goal of your discussion is to try and persuade your friend to see the issue more like the way you do.

Even Shammai – a Sage not known to be the friendliest, most open-minded scholar – taught that we “should receive everyone with a cheerful countenance.” (Avot 1:15) So try to smile while you are listening as well as when you are talking. Tell a joke, perhaps, to lighten to mood. (A friendly joke, by the way. Not a mean-spirited one!)

By responding with kindness, it is more likely that your friend will hear and understand your perspective.

Third, be modest. Realize that no one person knows everything there is to know about any subject. Even if it is something you have studied a lot, accept the fact that our human minds are nevertheless limited. Be modest enough to allow your friend’s point of view a fair hearing in your thoughts.

Behaving in a modest manner, rather than a bombastic one, is also much more likely to allow your argument to be truly heard by your friend. We all have a tendency to be put off by someone who is bombastic and arrogant, making it difficult for us to listen to what he has to say.

Fourth, study your own position carefully. This unfortunately means we must go beyond the sound-bites our favorite news sources spoon feed to us. Start with those talking points, perhaps, but then do your own research to verify that the facts are true and that the argument makes sense.

So often we read something that sounds pretty crazy, but because it supports a belief we already have we are ready to suspend our common sense and we pass along the report by email or in social media to all our friends. Only to have a fact-checker reply that the report was not true at all. And then we are embarrassed – and worse we have spread false information to dozens of other people who may not realize it.

So we must really study our own position carefully, and all the talking points we hear about it, before passing them along to others. This is not easy. It requires taking our time and reading criticallyespecially about the things we already tend to agree with and take for granted as true.

Fifth, study the arguments of the other perspective. As it says in Pirkei Avot (1:6) “Judge everyone with the scales tipped in their favor.” There is most likely going to be some truth to your friend’s perspective, so before just dismissing it outright, consider it carefully and try to find where you and he have common ground.

Finally, cite the opposing view first. After listening carefully to your friend’s point of view, validate it by repeating it back to them: this is what I hear you are saying. Did I hear you correctly? Only then should you try to explain where and why you disagree.

So these are six basic principles the Talmud teaches us lead to successful arguments: admitting that there is almost always some truth on both sides, being kind to those we disagree with, being modest in how we understand and present our position, studying the argument of the other side as well as verifying the arguments on our side, and really listening to our friend and repeating his position first before we offer our own.

To these I would add that we must always recognize the humanity of everyone. The first and most fundamental teaching in our Torah is that all human beings are created in the Divine image and for that reason alone are worthy of being treated with dignity and respect. Even when we disagree on important issues of the day, we need to treat our friends and family with dignity and respect.

Pirkei Avot (5:17) teaches us that there are two kinds of arguments: those that are L’shem Shamayim (for the Sake of Heaven), and those that are not L’Shem Shamayim. Those that are L’shem shamayim have enduring value. While those that are not L’shem shamayim are worthless and of no consequence.

The arguments between Hillel and Shammai, we are told, were for the sake of Heaven – they were conducted in an effort to understand what God truly wants from us in this world. How can we as human beings be helpful to others, show them kindness, promote honesty and fairness, and take care of God’s creation. The disputes between Shammai and Hillel were honest disagreements about how best to achieve these ends. They have enduring value.

The arguments of the demagogue, Korach, on the other hand, who sought only wealth and power for himself, was an argument not for the Sake of Heaven. It was worthless and of no lasting consequence. His arguments died with him in the Wilderness.

And so it is today. The purpose of having arguments about issues of policy should not be to berate or humiliate the other person. Nor should it even be to “lord it over” our opponents with our brilliance or arrogance. Nor should it be to vent our anger and frustration – though that is certainly tempting at times. Those are arguments that our tradition would call “Lo b’shem shamayim” – not for the sake of Heaven. They should be disregarded and forgotten.

Rather the purpose of debating issues of policy today should be to try and achieve some kind of understanding with each other, and hopefully a compromise in which we strive to make our community, our country and the world a better place. These arguments are “for the sake of Heaven” and are worthy of deliberation.

If you want to win arguments, to change hearts and minds, you need to understand first where your friend is coming from. And you need to follow the steps that the school of Hillel took in making their case.

As I noted before, we are literally assaulted with hundreds of political messages every day. In emails, on television and the radio, on the internet, and even from co-workers, friends, and family. The rhetoric in many of these messages is often shrill, extreme, and even hateful.

Sometimes, we might rush to pass along these messages to all our friends in the electronic cyber land of modern media. But we really owe it to ourselves to stop and take a deep breath first. Think about the message, how it is conveyed, if it is reasonable, check the facts, and only pass it along if we are comfortable that it is true, constructive, and said in a manner that we would be comfortable saying to someone standing in front of us that we know might disagree with us.

We are all created in God’s image. And we all deserve a civil and honest discussion that grants respect even to those with whom we may disagree. In that way we will fulfill Hillel’s other dictum (Avot 1:12) to “be like the disciples of Aaron, one that loves peace, and pursues peace, that loves mankind and brings them close to Torah.”

Words are the greatest invention of humanity. They can be used to enlighten us or to confuse us. They can be used to promote tolerance and understanding, or to spread fear and hatred. They can be used to bring us closer together, to teach us to love and nurture each other. Or they can be used to divide us, to cause pain and to incite anger.

On Yom Kippur we will beat our chests through a litany of sins, so many of which deal with how we speak to each other and what we say, the language we use.

As we evaluate how we want to improve ourselves in the coming year, ­let us strive to use our words thoughtfully, with love, and with wisdom.

About the Author
Rabbi Morgen is an Associate Rabbi of Congregation Beth Yeshurun in Houston, TX. He has served on the Boards of the Houston Jewish Federation, and the local boards of the AJC, and the ADL. He is a Senior Rabbinic Fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute. He graduated from UCLA School of Law and practiced law in Los Angeles. He was ordained by JTS in 1998.