Rabbi urges more civility, `Speak No Evil Day'

Gannett News Service

Can you imagine a 24-hour period when kids wouldn't be bullied on the playground, bosses wouldn't make nasty comments, co-workers would refrain from gossip and politicians would debate without making personal attacks?

Too much to ask? Rabbi Joseph Telushkin doesn't think so.

He's asking Congress to designate a ``Speak No Evil Day.'' So far, at least three U.S. senators -- Connie Mack, R-Fla.; Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn.; Connecticut and Tom Harkin, D-Iowa of Iowa -- support the idea.

On ``Speak No Evil Day,'' which the proposed resolution earmarks for May 14, 1997, Americans would be asked to refrain from using words that injure others.

Though some individuals may brush off ``Speak No Evil Day'' as a silly idea, Telushkin argues that we need to take a serious look at this trend toward cruel and unfair speech.

The New York rabbi feels so strongly that he wrote a book, ``Words That Hurt, Words That Heal -- How To Choose Words Wisely and Well' ' (William Morrow, $19.95).

In it, he says that all of us take unfair swipes when we're mad, don't like someone or seek an advantage. It's human nature, he admits.

But he contends that unfair speech causes incalculable damage, and that it can and should be curbed. Simply following the Golden Rule -- ``Do unto others as you would have others do unto you'' -- would cure the problem.

Failing to follow this dictum has serious consequences, Telushkin says. Unless you have endured serious physical violence or illness, he says, your worst pain has probably been from words -- criticism, sarcasm, humiliation, hurtful nicknames, betrayal of secrets, rumors or malicious gossip.

Biblical Basics And Beyond: 18 questions testing our Jewish literacy


Judaism is not a quick-fix kind of religion. The Ten Commandments may be short and to the point, but the wisdom of Judaism does not lend itself to soundbites or pop quizzes. Mindful of these limitations, the Baltimore Jewish Times invited rabbi and author Joseph Telushkin to test our knowledge of Jewish values and events over the last few thousand years.

1. How did the Ten Lost Tribes become lost?

After the Jews' revolt against the Assyrian Empire was suppressed in 722 B.C.E., the Assyrians scattered the inhabitants of the Ten Tribes throughout their empire. In the eighth century before the Common Era, there were two Jewish states: Judea, which was inhabited by the tribes of Judah and Benjamin, and Israel, where the other 10 tribes lived. When the Ten Tribes were exiled, the Jewish population in the territory of Israel was decimated.

During the Middle Ages, when almost all Jews lived under oppression in Europe or the Arab world, tales spread of a kingdom beyond the legendary river Sambatyon. It was inhabited by the Ten Tribes, who would someday rescue their suffering brothers. In reality, it appears that most of the Ten Tribes' descendants assimilated into the societies in which they were exiled.

2. Rabbi Akiva is commonly regarded as the greatest sage mentioned in the Talmud. When did he begin his Jewish studies?

As a young man, Akiva was an uneducated shepherd. But Rachel, the daughter of his wealthy employer, Kalba Savua, recognized something special about his spirit and agreed to marry him on condition that he start learning Torah. This task seemed forbidding to the 40-year-old Akiva, until one day he came across a stone that had been hollowed out by drops of water. He reasoned:"If water, which is soft, can hollow out a stone, which is hard, how much more will the words of the Torah, which are hard, cut through and make an impression on my heart, which is soft."

He and Rachel married over Kalba Savua's objections, and the furious father-in-law immediately disowned them. Despite the poverty into which the couple were thrust, Rachel continued to encourage Akiva in his studies. Eventually, the formerly illiterate shepherd was recognized as the leading scholar of his age.

3. When was polygamy outlawed among the Jews?

Polygamy was outlawed in the 10th century of the Common Era, in an edict attributed to Rabbi Gershom of Germany. It had not been practiced widely among Jews for at least 1,000 years, although multiple marriages by a man were never outlawed.

Rabbi Gershom regarded polygamy as a desecration of God's name because Jews were seen as practicing a lower morality than their monogamous Christian neighbors.

He also might have been influenced by the curious fact that although

Torah law permitted polygamy, Torah narrative opposed it. Virtually every polygamous relationship described in the Bible is miserably unhappy.

The most obvious evidence of the Torah's preference for monogamy is that the first human beings God created were Adam and Eve, not Adam, Eve and Joan.

4. The Hebrew word for "seven" also describes the week-long ritual in which Jews mourn their closest relatives. What is this ceremony called?

Shiva. After the burial, mourners return home (or ideally to the home of the deceased) to sit shiva for seven days. During this week, mourners are expected to remain at home and sit on low stools. This last requirement is intended to reinforce the mourners' inner emotions. In English, we speak of "feeling low" as a synonym for depression. In Jewish law, the depression is literal.

5. From which biblical book does "The Lord is my shepherd" come?

"The Lord is my Shepherd" is the first line of the 23rd Psalm.

6. What event motivated Theodore Herzl to become the founder of the Zionist movement?

While covering the trial of Alfred Dreyfus, a French army captain falsely accused of having spied for Germany, Herzl became aware of the depth of anti-Semitism in France. At a ceremony convened to publicly humiliate Dreyfus, French mobs shouted "Death to the Jews." If even in this tolerant state, Jews could encounter such hostility (France was the first European country to grant Jews equal rights), Herzl reasoned that the only place they would be free would be in their own state.

7. What country first granted Jews equal rights?

The United States. The countries usually guessed are France, Germany, Holland and England. People rarely think of the United States (one reason might be that there were only about 2,000 Jews in America at the time of the Revolution). Yet, the United States was the only country in which civil rights were offered to Jews from the outset.

8. What holiday is most widely observed by American Jews?

Passover. Studies show that a larger percentage of American Jews observe the seder than any other Jewish ritual. The second most widely observed Jewish tradition is Yom Kippur, followed by the kindling of Chanukah lights. One reason the seder is so widely observed is that it not only celebrates Jews' emancipation from slavery, but also commemorates the beginning of Jewish nationhood.

9. Does the biblical phrase, "an eye for an eye," mean that one who blinds another should be blinded?

The Talmud states that "an eye for an eye" means that one must pay monetary compensation equivalent to the value of an eye. If the verse were carried out literally, the rabbis feared, removing the perpetrator's eye might kill him as well. That, of course, would be forbidden.

10. Why does the Talmud compare gossiping to murder?

As with murder, the damage done when you besmirch someone's good name is irrevocable. This insight is powerfully conveyed through a Chasidic tale about a man who slandered the rabbi to his community. One day, feeling remorseful, he begged the rabbi for forgiveness and indicated that he was willing to undergo any penance to make amends. The rabbi told him to take several feather pillows, cut them open, and scatter the feathers to the winds. The man returned, notifying the rabbi that he had fulfilled his request. He was then told, "Now go and gather all the feathers."

"But that's impossible."

"Of course it is. And though you may regret what you have done and truly desire to correct it, it is as impossible to repair the damage done by your words as it will be to recover the feathers."

11. What does the Talmud say the heavenly court will first ask a deceased person?

The Talmud (Shabbat 31a) teaches that in the hour when an individual is brought before the heavenly court for judgment, the person is asked:" Did you conduct your [business] affairs honestly?" The next three questions are: "Did you set aside time for regular Torah study? Did you work at having children? Did you look forward to the world's redemption?"

It's significant that the first question is not "Did you believe in God?" or "Did you observe all the rituals?"

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin wrote "Jewish Wisdom: Ethical, Spiritual and Historical Lessons From the Great Works and Thinkers."


...The sustaining nature of that culture is admirably evident in "Jewish Wisdom," a cheerfully edited compendium of sayings, proverbs and Talmudic commentaries that manages to make room for both Rabbi Akiva and Rodney Dangerfield. The book is organized thematically; the early sections, with subtitles like "How to Be a Good Person in a Complicated World," and "What God Wants From Us," draw most heavily on the Bible and the biblical commentaries that, codified by the Fifth Century, wound up in the Talmud. Later sections, like "The Holocaust" and "Zionism and Israel," inevitably focus on modern sources.

Telushkin's book is not only a terrific introduction to Judaism, it is a wonderful companion for anyone who wishes to have in one volume a wide sampling of responses to the challenge of living a moral life, ranging from the declarative wisdom of the Babylonian Talmud - "A person is prohibited to eat until he first feeds his animals" - to the injunction for self-preservation from the Book of Maccabees, a particularly appropriate source on this first day of Chanukah, to the sophisticated irony of a Yiddish joke that addresses God, "You help complete strangers, so why don't You help me?" Telushkin's own commentaries are useful reminders that study itself was as much the answer as any single response.

Unfortunately, as he enters modern times, Telushkin seems to forget the purpose of his book. A quote from Eli Wiesel boldly telling President Ronald Reagan, on the eve of his visit to the Bitburg Cemetery, "That place is not your place. Your place is with the victims of the SS," surely belongs in a book of Jewish wisdom. But quoting Heinrich Himmler on the Final Solution hardly seems natural in a work devoted to what the book's subtitle calls the "ethical, spiritual and historical lessons from the great works and thinkers."

Many readers will no doubt appreciate this sudden inclusion of historical context, but to my mind it mars the overall effectiveness of the volume, as does the inclusion of a "Philosemitism" section. That Telushkin should tell us what John Adams thought of the Jews, though interesting (and flattering), seems oddly out of place in what is otherwise a useful and enjoyable summation of Jewish thought.

Rabbi Telushkin serves the Synagogue of the Performing Arts, Los Angeles, Calif., and is the author of Words That Hurt, Words That Heal: How to Choose Words Wisely and Well. This article is based on a Center for Constructive Alternatives Seminar at Hillsdale (Mich.) College.


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