Sunday, May 17, 2009

The Power of Kind Words

The Jewish scriptures have inspired values and traditions in Western culture. Although the meaning has shifted, the idea of a day of rest has taken deep roots and shaped the development of the work week and of labor laws. From the position of the family in society to marriage laws, the imprint of Jewish scripture is visible . It is also necessary to place the Christian scriptures in a proper historical context.

There are Jewish commandments which are specific to Jews such as dietary laws and fasting on Yom Kippur. Other Jewish observances can be considered worthy of study by the world at large without necessarily being binding upon humanity in general.

There is one area of Jewish law that is widely studied in Jewish circles. It is the area of forbidden speech. I am not referring to profanity or blasphemy although those areas are addressed at length. I am referring to gossip and slander. It should be stressed that these are laws incumbent upon individuals. I am not calling them to the attention of the public with the idea of passing new legislation. Some things like politeness and punctuality can not be legislated.

There was a Rabbi who died in 1933 named the Chofetz Chaim, also known as Yisroel Meir Kagan. He was a leading codifier of these laws. A few points come to mind that are instructive.

Gossip is prohibited regardless of whether it is true or not. Badmouthing someone for the sole purpose of exchanging news is prohibited.

Gossip need not be with speech. Rolling the eyes or other derisive expressions also fall under this prohibition.

Speaking well of a person in front of his enemies is prohibited. Such talk is likely to elicit a rebuttal.

Sometimes it is necessary to relay information that would spare the person asking for it a loss. A good example would be a wife beater who wants a marriage reference or a thief who is being considered as a business partner. The information shared for this reason should be restricted to the matter at hand.

Even face to face communication with a person is subject to regulation. Speaking to someone in a way that causes unnecessary embarrassment is prohibited. Calling someone aside and telling him his zipper is down is OK. Yelling it to him across a room in a derisive tone is not.

The spirit of these laws is worth capturing in some kind of practical observance. Gossip is hurtful to everyone. Specific laws can be helpful in curbing negative speech. No one likes being gossipped about. The sense of being important as the bearer of juicy gossip is a universal theme.

Life is a wheel. Even if those who gossip are not spoken about, they are likely to imagine that others are speaking about them in the manner in which they speak of others. If a gossip spends his whole day trashing people, he is bound to wonder what is being said of him. This is not a very happy thought for some people.

What if someone gets into the habit of thinking well and speaking well of other people? Might they start thinking better of themselves? Could changing speech help in fighting depression and low self esteem? Could it cut down the number of broken friendships? How many actual fist fights could be avoided?

Sticks and stones do break bones. And words do hurt.

I am not proposing civil legislation regarding gossip and embarrassing people any more than I think that sensible eating should be mandated by law. But we all have free choice to speak in a manner that is not hurtful to others. I have worked in hostile work environments riddled with gossip. It was not interesting. It was emotionally draining. I have also worked in places with a flawless team spirit where ill was spoken of no one. Conversation was not boring. It was lively. People differed and did so respectfully.

Speech is food for the mind. It can be junky or healthful. And even if it is healthful, it can be well prepared and served.

We are living in a time when government seems to be growing. Let's not lose sight of the areas where the private exercise of free will can make a difference. It is not so difficult or distant from us. It is in fact as close as the tip of your tongue. Sphere: Related Content

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