Putting Words in Our Hearts

August 26th: Ekev
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

Last week, I wrote about the composite nature of the Shema and how the ancient Rabbis combined three different Biblical passages into the liturgical unit we know today. The first of these passages, Deuteronomy 6.4-9, was in last week’s Torah portion. The second one, Deuteronomy 11.13-21, is in this week’s parashah. (The third paragraph, Numbers 15.37-41, is from Parshat Shelach Lecha, which we read back in July.)

In both the first and the second paragraphs, we have an interesting thought, expressed in Deuteronomy 11.18, “Therefore keep these My words in your heart and in your soul.” The mitzvah here is for us to take God’s words and impress them upon our deepest sensibilities. There is a connection between the words we use and our internal attitudes, and the connection is worthy of our holy attention.

As we reflect upon the meaning of this mitzvah in our modern lives, I find myself wondering about way words convey messages that are problematic. In other words, since words affect and shade our attitudes, motivations, and relationships, it would behoove us to think carefully about the implications of what we say. Consider the following words and their implications.

In the struggle over abortion rights, much of the battle revolves around terminology. Do we call one side “pro-life” or “anti-abortion?” Do we call the other side “pro-choice” or “pro-abortion?” Each term carries a significantly different message; whoever can set the vocabulary gains an automatic rhetorical advantage.

Sometimes, we agree on the word to use, but we disagree about its meaning. Take the word patriotic and think back of the word battles we fought as we began the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Does patriotic mean supporting our nation or does it mean agreeing with national policy? Is it possible to be a patriot and disagree with the leadership or strategy? It was/is a painful debate because the word packs a powerful emotional and philosophical punch.

In the case of the word homophobic, I am struck by the way this term has morphed way beyond its original meaning of “afraid of homosexuals/homosexuality.” Many of the people who oppose gay rights are not afraid of homosexuals; they believe that homosexuality is immoral or against God’s law. Using homophobic to describe them is like saying that people who keep kosher are afraid of ham sandwiches. It is a demeaning term which suggests that people opposed to gay rights are needlessly and foolishly frightened of something that is not dangerous. I happen to believe in GLBT rights, and Reform Judaism is a prominent proponent for full inclusion and affirmation of GLBT individuals. However, I think that the term homophobic is problematic and not as accurate as the discussion deserves.

I have similar reservations about the meaning and usage of the word racist. There is a notion that a non-racist person is colorblind, but colorblindness would ignore the importance of racial identity that is more or less present in every individual. If I invite a white friend over and serve fried chicken and watermelon, it is just a menu. But, if I served the same menu to a black friend, is it just a random choice of dishes, or is there something else present? Does racist mean being oblivious to another person’s racial sensitivities or identity, or does it mean discriminatory attitudes or actions. Or, does it mean disagreeing with the current agenda and attitudes of any of the various groups identified as the Civil Rights Community? As Jesse Jackson once and famously said, whites should not criticize Affirmative Action because it is “the Israel of the Black community.”

 This, of course, brings us to the term anti-Semitism and the Israel of the Jewish community, Israel. Is it anti-Semitic to criticize the Jewish State? Is it disloyal for Jews or anti-Semitic for non-Jews to question policies of Israel? I heard a speaker last year address the BDS Movement and its anti-Israel work on so many campuses. The speaker made the point that this Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (against Israel) movement is not unanimous. Some people in the movement are literally anti-Israel, believing that Israel has no right to exist and that it should be dismantled and eliminated. Others in the movement are concerned about what they consider to be immoral actions and policies of the Israeli government. It is important, the speaker said, to be sure to distinguish between the two BDS camps when addressing their rhetoric. It is inaccurate and unjust to lump everyone together. There is also the question of whether anti-Israel opinions are inherently anti-Jewish. Some maintain that the two can be separate, though, in all too many cases, there seems to be a convergence with the “anti” people themselves using Jewish and Israel interchangeably.

A final term to consider is genocide, a word which originally meant the complete annihilation of a group, generally an ethnic or religious group. This is/was the meaning, but the word has been so misused that even some dictionaries (which are really just followers and documentarians of current usage) have expanded the definition to be the deliberate killing of a large group of people. Annihilation is, for some, no longer part of the concept; it is just a matter of deliberateness and a non-specific quantitative measurement of the number of victims. With no threshold included, the term can be applied—with all of its attendant emotional intensity—to pretty much any case of oppression in which deaths have occurred. This is not to justify oppressive or murderous actions, but there is a difference in scale and quality between immorality and genocide. The conflation of the terms obscures the actual issues and is therefore not helpful in addressing serious matters. A case in point: For many years, some critics of Israel’s policy have said that Israel is committing genocide against the Palestinian People. Genocide?! Since the Israelis won the Occupied Territories in 1967, the Palestinian population has more than quadrupled—a fact which led Morton Klein of the Zionist Organization of America to an ironic quip, “Whoever is in charge of genocide is not doing a very good job!” Mr. Klein is a Zionist and supportive of Israel and its policies, but that does not affect his point: there is no genocide.  Even someone who is critical of Israel in the most intense way should have the linguistic and philosophical integrity to find words that are accurate and thus constructive in adjudicating the very difficult situation that both Israel and the Palestinians face.

Words have meanings, and the integrity of discussions on important matters— indeed, the ability of discourse to help resolve important challenges—is dependent on speaking with truth and clarity. The writers of the Torah may not have had these particular issues in mind when they wrote, “Keep these words in your heart and in your soul,” but they knew the connection and the power that words have over our attitudes. Let us be vigilant in both our attitudes and our words.