The power of speech


As we saw in Parshat Tazria, the Sages identify tzara’at — the condition that affects human skin, the fabric of garments, and the walls of a house — not as an illness but as a punishment, and not for any sin but for one specific sin, that of lashon hara, evil speech.

This prompts the obvious question: Why evil speech and not some other sin? Why should speaking be worse than, say, physical violence? It is unpleasant to hear bad things said about you, but surely no more than that.

There is not even a direct prohibition against evil speech in the Torah. There is a prohibition against gossip: “Do not go around as a gossiper among your people” (Vayikra 19:16). Lashon hara is a subset of this larger command.

The Sages go to remarkable lengths to emphasize its seriousness. It is, they say, as bad as all three cardinal sins together — idol worship, bloodshed, and illicit relations. Whoever speaks with an evil tongue, they say, is as if he denied G-d. Why are mere words treated with such seriousness in Judaism?

The answer touches on one of the most basic principles of Jewish belief. There are ancient cultures who worshipped the gods because they saw them as powers: lightning, thunder, the rain and sun, the ocean that epitomized the forces of chaos, and sometimes wild animals that represented danger. Judaism was not a religion that worshipped power, despite the fact that G-d is more powerful than any pagan deity.

Judaism, like other religions, has holy places, holy people, sacred times, and consecrated rituals. What made Judaism different, however, is that it is a religion of holy words. With words G-d created the universe: “And G-d said, Let there be … and there was.” Through words He communicated with humankind. In Judaism, language itself is holy.

That is why lashon hara is not merely a minor offense. It involves taking something that is holy and using it for purposes that are unholy. It is a kind of desecration.

After creating the universe, G-d’s first gift to the first man was the power to use words to name the animals, and thus to use language to classify. This was the start of the intellectual process that distinguishes Homo sapiens. The Targum translates the phrase “and man became a living creature” (Bereishit 2:7) as “a speaking spirit.” Evolutionary biologists nowadays take the view that it was the demands of language that led to the massive expansion of the human brain.

When G-d sought to halt the plan of the people of Babel to build a tower to heaven, He “confused their language” so they were unable to communicate. Language remains basic to the existence of human groups. To this day, differences of language, where they exist within a single nation, are the source of ongoing political and social friction: between English and French speakers in Canada; Dutch, French, German, and Walloon speakers in Belgium; and the Spanish and Basque languages in Spain.

G-d created the natural universe with words. We create — and sometimes destroy — the social universe with words.

So the first principle of language in Judaism is that it is creative. We create worlds with words. The second principle is no less fundamental. Abrahamic monotheism introduced into the world the idea of a G-d who transcends the universe, and who therefore cannot be identified with any phenomenon within it. G-d is invisible. Hence in Judaism all religious images and icons are a sign of idolatry.

How, then, does an invisible G-d reveal Himself? Revelation was not a problem for polytheism. The pagans saw gods in nature, making us feel small and powerless in the face of its fury. A G-d who cannot be seen or even represented in images demands a different kind of religious sensibility. Where can such a G-d be found?

The answer again is: in words. G-d spoke. He spoke to Adam, Noach, Avraham, Moshe. At the revelation at Mount Sinai, as Moshe reminded the Israelites, “The L-rd spoke to you out of the fire. You heard the sound of words but saw no form; there was only a voice” (Devarim 4:12).

In Judaism, words are the vehicle of revelation. The prophet is the man or woman who hears and speaks the word of G-d. That was the phenomenon that neither Spinoza nor Einstein could understand. They could accept the idea of a G-d who created heaven and earth, the force of forces and cause of causes, the originator of the Big Bang, the G-d who was the architect of matter and the composer of order. G-d, Einstein famously said, “does not play dice with the universe.”

Judaism calls this aspect of G-d Elokim. But we believe in another aspect of G-d also, which we call Hashem, the G-d of relationship — and relationship exists by virtue of speech. For it is speech that allows us to communicate with others and convey our inwardness to them. It is at the very heart of the human bond.

A G-d who could create universes but not speak or listen would be an impersonal G-d — a G-d incapable of understanding what makes us human. Worshipping such a G-d would be like bowing down to the sun or a giant computer. We might care about it but it could not care about us. That is not the G-d of Avraham.

We can use language not just to describe but to create new moral facts. The Oxford philosopher J. L. Austin called this special use of language “performative utterance.” The classic example is a promise. When I make a promise, I create an obligation that did not exist before. Nietzsche believed that the ability to make a promise was the birth of morality and human responsibility.

Hence the idea at the heart of Judaism: a brit, covenant, which is a mutually binding promise between G-d and human beings. What defines the special relationship between the Jewish people and G-d is not that He brought them from slavery to freedom. He did that, says the prophet Amos, to other people as well: “Did I not bring Israel up from Egypt, the Philistines from Caphtor, and the Arameans from Kir?” (Amos 9:7). It is the fact that at Sinai, G-d and Israel entered into a mutual pledge that linked them in an everlasting bond.

For that reason, Jews were able to survive exile. They may have lost their home, their land, their power, their freedom, but they still had G-d’s word, the word He said He would never break or rescind. The Torah, in the most profound sense, is the word of G-d, and Judaism is the religion of holy words.

To abuse language to sow dissension is not just destructive. It is sacrilege. It takes something holy, the human ability to communicate and join soul to soul, and use it for the lowest of purposes, to destroy the trust on which relationships depend.

That, according to the Sages, is why the speaker of lashon hara was smitten by leprosy and forced to live as a pariah outside the camp. The punishment was measure for measure.

Judaism emerged as an answer to a series of questions: How can finite human beings be connected to an infinite G-d? How can they be connected to one another? How can there be cooperation, collaboration, families, communities, a nation, without coercive use of power? How can we form relationships of trust? How can we create collective liberty such that my freedom is not bought at the cost of yours?

The answer is: through words, words that communicate, words that bind, words that honor the Divine Other and the human other.

Lashon hara, by poisoning language, destroys the very basis of that vision. When we speak disparagingly of others, we diminish them, we diminish ourselves, and we damage the very ecology of freedom.

That is why the Sages take lashon hara so seriously. Never take language lightly, implies the Torah. It was through language that G-d created the natural world, and through language that we create and sustain our social world. It is as essential to our survival as the air we breathe.