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Rosh Hashana 2010


One of the most interesting features of a God relationship is the way we use language. God “speaks” as He creates. “And God said, ‘Let there be’.” Man is a “speaking animal”. The Decalogue puts tremendous emphasis on not taking God’s name in vain and not speaking false testimony. Language matters because it can sometimes be so damaging. There are laws against scandal and gossip.

But conversely, words can be inspiring. Moshe was not a fluent speaker, it is true, and that alone indicates God’s skepticism about oratory. But the words of the Torah speak to us. And they speak in a simple language we can understand. Yet without interpretation the words can sometimes sound either obscure or inconsistent. The rabbis of the Talmud make the point that the normally laconic Torah actually added eight extra letters only to avoid saying something unpleasant (Pesachim 3A, etc.).

Over the coming Holy Days we must confess. We must give verbal expression to our misdeeds and mistakes, and own up to them, directly to God. Confessing to other humans is not regarded as a religious obligation in our tradition. It is a brilliant pre-Freudian device. Unless we actually express something verbally, it remains locked in our subconscious.

I mention this now because these days we take God’s in name in vain at the drop of a hat (or a standard). We are so free and easy with words. Amongst our most common phrases is “I am sorry; I didn’t mean it.” Well if you didn’t mean it, why say it? Or “You use words well”, meaning you know how to lie. You’re just a bull.t artist.

Even though they are fluid and constantly change to some degree or other, each culture and each language has its own peculiarities. Languages all have their meaningless words. So for example in English when you are unsure of a word or need time to think, you might say “er” or “umm”, although if you are an aristocrat, and preferably drunk, you are more likely to say “ah”. The fumbling bumbling is a characteristic of English prevarication and obfuscation. If you are Israeli, you will dot your speech with “eeem” or a guttural “errr”. Both sounds are more definite and aggressive. An Arab or a Charedi will use “ach” a lot, I guess because that is suitably dismissive of anyone who disagrees.

It struck me a few days ago that in all the years of my youth that I used to hear great heads of yeshiva like R. Moshe Shapiro Z”L or R. Chayim Shmulevitz Z”L, or great musar orators like R. Shlomo Volbe Z”L, I cannot once recall any one of them using an unnecessary word, an “err” or an “ach” or an “eeem”. Their language was precise. Words were carefully chosen and used to brilliant effect, precisely because they were accurate and sharp. Nowadays even the best of orators uses fillers, words or phrases to fill the gaps or give time to think, that most listeners don’t even notice.

Current American fashion is to say “like”, so to combine old fashion with new you might say “like, er”. That betrays American verbal laziness as well as relativism. Anything can be compared to anything else. They are all more or less, like, the same.

But the American slang that always strikes me most is “hang out”, as in the expression “Do you want to hang out with me tonight?” It doesn’t just mean “pass the time with me” in any which way is relevant. It also means “we have something trivial in common, common pastimes and common leisure activities”. You would not say to someone you wanted to study with or learn a blat Gemora, “Let’s hang out.” To “hang”, to be “suspended”, is in between heaven and earth. It is nowhere in particular. It does not define any action other than negatively. And as for “out”, that means excluded, out of, anything substantial. In other words, it is the perfect expression of futility, dislocation and waste.

“Freedom of speech” is the new god of our times. Say whatever you like. Insult whomsoever you wish. Propagate whatever hateful libel. It doesn’t matter, if it serves your cause. “Freedom of speech” is something I value; but I cannot find it in the Torah, the Talmud, or the Codes of Law. What I do find is “guarding one’s tongue”. It seems to me that “freedom of thought” matters more than “freedom of speech”. Speech is an easily abused commodity, whereas thought can be kept to oneself.

Yet, as the Bible says, “Your thoughts are not mine, says God.” The aim of the Holy Days is to see if we can get the two to coincide.

4 thoughts on “Rosh Hashana 2010

  1. I'm choosing my words carefully after reading your essay!

    It seems to me that, as Jews, we are fortunate to have the books we live by written in an ancient language which therefore does not suffer from neologisms. Nonetheless, I well remember the gelernt in the family arguing over the Hebrew texts saying "but on the other hand…".

    As far as our everyday expressions go, I feel that language is and should be in a state of flux but am in total agreement that "freedom of thought" is more important that that of expression. After all, they can't touch you for what you're thinking!

    Let's have it for self-control!

    Good Shabbos and a Very Good Year to you and yours.

  2. Happy New Year R. Rosen!
    and to all others associated with this blog 😉

    As this last week was "coloured" by a statement by a renowned scientist –

    either … the non-believer will never "know" if they were right…

    or … the believer – if wrong – will also never "know" it

    Thank you for the prods in the year which now passes – keep them coming after the trabant lights up from the other edge!


  3. Leila:

    Quite agree, language is not static, but on the other hand precise use helps precise thought and the reverse.

    Yer know wot I mean, sort of, eh?

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