IMPRIMIS: Because Ideas Have Consequences
January 1996  Volume 25, #1

"Words That Hurt, Words That Heal: How to Choose Words Wisely and Well"
by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin
Synagogue of the Performing Arts

 Joseph Telushkin received his rabbinical ordination from Yeshiva University
and pursued graduate studies in Jewish history at Columbia University. He
currently serves the Synagogue of the Performing Arts in Los Angeles.
 He is also the author of the popular Rabbi Winter mystery series as well as:
_Jewish Literacy: The Most Important Things to Know About the Jewish
Religion, Its People, and Its History_; _Jewish Humor: What the Best Jewish
Jokes Say About the Jews_; _The Nine Questions People Ask About Judaism_ (co-
authored); _Why the Jews? The Reason for Anti-Semitism_; and a screenplay,
_The Quarrel_ (co-authored), which was chosen as an American Playhouse
production and showcased at the Toronto film festival. Rabbi Telushkin's
forthcoming book, _Words That Hurt, Words That Heal: How To Choose Words
Wisely andd Well_, will be published by William Morrow & Company in April,


  Over the past decade, whenever I have lectured throughout the country on
the powerful, and often negative, impact of words, I have asked audiences if
they can go for twenty-four hours without saying any unkind words about, or
to, anybody.
  Invariably, a minority of listeners raise their hands signifying "yes,"
some laugh, and quite a large number call out, "no!"
  I respond by saying, "Those who can't answer 'yes' must recognize that you
have a serious problem. If you cannot go for twenty-four hours without
drinking liquor, you are addicted to alcohol. If you cannot go for
twenty-four hours without smoking, you are addicted to nicotine. Similarly,
if you cannot go for twenty-four hours without saying unkind words about
others, then you have lost control over your tongue."
  How can I compare the harm done by a bit of gossip or a few unpleasant
words to the damage caused by alcohol and smoking? Well, just think about
your own life for a minute. Unless you, or someone dear to you, has been the
victim of terrible physical violence, chances are the worst pains you have
suffered in life have come from words used cruelly -- from ego-destroying
criticism, excessive anger, sarcasm, public and private humiliation, hurtful
nicknames, betrayal of secrets, rumors, and malicious gossip.

Testing Your Speech

  There is no area of life in which so many of us systematically violate the
Golden Rule. Thus if you were about to enter a room and heard the people
inside talking about you, chances are what you would least like to hear them
talking about are your character flaws and the intimate details of your
social life. Yet, when you are with friends and the conversation turns to
people not present, what aspects of yheir lives are you and your companions
most likely to explore? Is it not their character flaws and the intimate
details of their social lives?
  If you do not participate in such talk, congratulations. But before
asserting this as a definite fact, try monitoring your conversation for two
days. Note on a piece of paper every time you say something negative about
someone who is not present. Also record when others do so, as well as your
reactions when that happens. Do you try to silence the speaker, or do you ask
for more details?
  To ensure the test's accuracy, make no attempt to change the content of
your conversations throughout the two-day period, and do not try to be kinder
than usual in assessing another's character and actions.
  Most of us who take this test are unpleasantly surprised.
  Negative comments we make about absent companions is but one way we would
with words; we also often cruelly hurt those *to whom* we are speaking. For
example, many of us, when enraged, grossly exaggerate the wrong done by the
person who has provoked our ire. If the anger expressed is disproportionate
to the provocation (as often occurs when parents rage at children), it is
unfair, often inflicts great hurt and damage, and thus is unethical.
  All too often, many of us criticize others with harsh, offensive words,
turn disputes into quarrels, belittle or humiliate others, and inflict wounds
that last a lifetime.

The Power of Words

  One reason that otherwise "good" people use words irresponsibly and cruelly
is that they regard the injuries inflicted by words as intangible and
therefore minimize the damage they can inflict. For generations, children
taunted by playmates have been taught to respons, "Sticks and stones can
break my bones but words (or names) can never hurt me." But does anyone
really think that a child exposed to such abuse believes it?
  An old Jewish teaching compares the tongue to an arrow: "Why not another
weapon -- a sword, for example?" one rabbi asks. "Because," he is told, "if a
man unsheathes his sword to kill his friend, and his friend pleads with him
and begs for mercy, the man may be mollified and return the sword to its
scabbard. But an arrow, once it is shot, cannot be returned."
  The rabbi's comparison is more than just a useful metaphor. Because words
can be used to inflict devastating and irrevocable suffering, Jewish
teachings go so far as to compare cruel words to murder. A penitent thief can
return the money he has stolen; a murderer, no matter how sincerely he
repents, cannot restore his victim to life. Similarly, one who damage's
another's reputation through malicious gossip or who humiliates another
publicly can never fully undo the damage.
  Words, quite simply, are very powerful. Indeed, the Bible teaches that God
created the world through words. At the beginning of Genesis we learn, "And
God said, 'Let there be light,' and there was light." I would submit that
human beings, like God, also create with words. Consider the fact that most,
if not all, of us have had the experience of reading a novel and being so
moved by the fate of a character that we have cried, even though the
character who has so moved us doesn't exist. All that happened was that
writer took a blank piece of paper, put words on it, and through words alone
created a human being so totally real that he or she is capable of evoking
our deepest emotions.
  Words are powerful enough to lead to love, but they can also lead to hatred
and terrible pain. We must be extremely careful how we use them.
  A Jewish folktale, set in nineteenth-century Eastern Europe, tells of a man
who went through a small community slandering the rabbi. One day, feeling
suddenly remorseful, he begged the rabbi for forgiveness and offered to
undergo any form of penance to make amends. The rabbi told him to take a
feather pillow from his home, cut it open, scatter the feathers to the wind.
The man did as he was told and returned to the rabbi. He asked, "Am I now
  "Almost," came the response. "You just have to perform one last task: Go
and gather all the feathers."
  "But that's impossible," the man protested, "for the wind has already
scattered them."
  "Precisely," the rabbi answered.
  The rabbi in this story understands that words define our place in the
world. Once our place -- in other words, our reputation -- is defined, it is
very hard to change, particularly if it is negative.
  President Andrew Jackson who, along with his wife was the subject of
relentless malicious gossip, once noted, "The murderer only takes the life of
the parend and leaves his character as a goodly heritage to his children,
while the slanderer takes away his goodly reputation and leaves him a living
monument to his children's disgrace."
  Considerate, fair and civilized use of words is every bit as necessary in
the lardger society as in one-on-one relationships. Throughout history, words
used unfairly have promoted hatred and even murder. African Americans, for
example, were long branded with words that depicted them as subhuman. Those
who first described blacks in such terms hoped to enable whites to view them
as different and inferior to themselves. This was important because, if
whites perceived blacks as fully human, otherwise "decent" people could never
have tolerated their persecution, enslavement, or lynching.
  Similarly, when the radical Black Panther Party referred to police as
"pigs" during the 1960s, its intention was not to hurt policemen's feelings
but to dehumanize them and so establish in people's minds that murdering a
policeman was really only like killing a dumb animal.

The Biblical Ethics of Speech

  The biblical ethics of speech derive in large measure from a verse in
Leviticus: "You shall not go about as a talebearer among your people"
(19:16), which, not coincidentally, appears only two verses before the
Bible's most famous law, "Love your neighbor as yourself" (19:18).
  Because the commandment is so terse, it is difficult to know exactly what
the Bible means by "tale-bearing." Does this law mean that it is forbidden to
talk about any aspect of other people's lives (e.g., telling a friend, "I was
at a party at Sam and Sally's house last night. It's absolutely gorgeous what
they've done with their kitchen.")? Or does the verse only outlaw damning
insinuations (e.g.,, "When Sam went away on that business trip last month, I
saw his wife Sally at a real fancy restaurant with this good-looking guy. She
didn't see me, because they were too busy making eyes at each other.")? Is it
talebearing, for that matter, to pass on true stories (e.g., "Sally confessed
to Betty she's having an affair. Sam ought to know what goes on when he's out
of town.")?
  The Bible itself never fully answers these questions. But for centuries
Jewish teachers have elaborated upon the biblical law and formulated, in
ascending order of seriousness, three types of speech that we should decrease
or eliminate: non-defamatory and true remarks about others; negative, though
true, stories that lower the esteem in which people hold the person being
discussed (in Hebrew, *lashon ha-ra*); and slander -- that is, lies or rumors
that are negative and false (in Hebrew, *motzi shem ra*).

 Non-defamatory and True Remarks

  The comment, "I was at a party at Sam and Sally's house last night. It's
absolutely gorgeous what they've done with their kitchen," is non-defamatory
and true. What possible reason could there be for discouraging people from
exchanging such innocuous, even complimentary, information?
  For one thing, the listener might not find the information so innocuous.
While one person is describing how wonderful the party was, the other might
well wonder, "Why wasn't I invited? I had them over to my house just a month
  But the more important reason for discouraging "innocuous" gossip is that
it rarely remains so. Suppose I suggest that you and a friend spend twenty
minutes talking about a mutual acquaintance. How likely is it that you will
devote the entire time to exchanging stories about his or her niceness?
  Maybe you will, that is if the person you are discussing is Mother Theresa.
Otherwise the conversation will likely take on a negative tone. For most of
us, exchanging critical news and evaluations about others is far more
interesting and enjoyable than exchanging accolades. If I were to say to you,
"Janet is a wonderful person. There's just *one thing* I can't stand about
her," on what aspects of Janet's character do you think the rest of our
conversation will most likely focus? The reason is that "Nobody ever gossips
about other people's secret virtues," as British philosopher Bertrand Russell
once noted. What most interests most people about others are their character
flaws and private scandals. Even if you do not let the discussion shift in a
negative direction, becoming an ethical speaker forces you to anticipate the
inadvertant harm that you words might cause. For example, although praising a
friend might seem like a laudable act, doing so in the presence of someone
who dislikes her will probably do you friend's reputation more harm than
good. Your words may well provoke her antagonist to voice the reasons for his
or her dislike, particularly if you leave soon after making your positive
  Indeed, the danger of praise leading to damage is likely at the root of the
Book of Proverbs' rather enigmatic observation: "He who blesses his neighbor
in a loud voice in the morning, it will later be thought a curse" (27:14).
Bible commentaries understand this to mean that fame and notoriety can
ultimately damage a person's good name -- or worse.

Negative Truths

  As a rule, most people seem to think that there is nothing morally wrong in
spreading negative information about another as long as the information is
true. But ordinary experience proves otherwise. The Jewish tradition also
takes a very different view. Perhaps that is why the Hebrew term *lashon
ha-ra* (literally "bad language" or "bad tongue") has no precise equivalent
in English. For unlike slander, which is universally condemned as immoral
because it is false, *lashon ha-ra* is true. It is the dissemination of
*accurate* information that will lower the status of the person to whom it
refers; hence I translate it as "negative truths."
  Jewish law forbids spreading negative truths about others unless the person
to whom you are speaking needs the information. To do so is a very serious
offense, one that has been addressed by many non-Jewish ethicists as well.
Two centuries ago, the Swiss theologian and poet Jonathan K. Lavater offered
a good guideline concerning the spreading of such news: "Never tell evil of a
man if you do not know it for a certainty, and if you know it for a
certainty, then ask yourself, 'Why should I tell it?'"
  Intention has a great deal to do with the circumstances in which it is
prohibited to speak negative truths. The same statement, depending on the
context, can constitute a compliment or a mean-spirited attempt to diminish
another person's status. For example, if you relate that a person known to
have limited funds gave a hundred dollars to a certain charity, you will
probably raise that person's stature because people will be impressed at his
or her generosity. But, if you say of an individual known to be wealthy that
he or she gave a hundred dollars to the same cause, the effect will be to
diminish respect for the person; he or she will now be thought of as "cheap."
  Unfortunately, this realization does not deter many people from speaking
negative truths. Gossip often is so interesting that it impels many of us to
violate the Golden Rule to "Do unto others as you would have others do unto
you." Although we are likely to acknowledge that we would want embarrassing
information about ourselves kept quiet, many of us refuse to be equally
discreet concerning others' sensitive secrets.


  The most greivous violation of ethical speech is, of course, the spreading
of malicious falsehoods, what Jewish law calls "motzi shem ra," or "giving
another a bad name." To destroy someone's good name is to commit a kind of
murder -- that is why it is called "character assassination." Indeed, it has
led to literal murder. During Europe's devastating fourteenth-century Black
Plague, anti-Semites and others seeking scapegoats spread the lie that Jews
had caused the Plague by poisoning the village wells. Within a few months,
enraged mobs murdered tens of thousands of Jews.
  Too often, the victims of slanderous tongues suffer terribly. In
Shakespeare's thirty-eight plays, there is no villain more vile than
Othello's Iago, whose evil is perpetrated almost exclusively through words.
At the outset, Iago vows to destroy the Moorish general Othello for bypassing
him for promotion. Knowing Othello's jealous nature, Iago convinces him that
his new wife, Desdemona, is having an affair with another man. The charge
seems preposterous, but Iago repeats the accusation again and again, and he
arranges the circumstantial evidence necessary to destroy Desdemona's
credibility. Soon, Othello comes to believe the slander, and he murders his
beloved, only to learn almost immediately that Iago's words were false. For
Othello, "Hell," as an old aphorism teaches, "is truth seen too late."


[Remainder clipped 'cause all it is is a plea for a national "Speak No Evil"
day established and a presidential proclamation -- superfluous, after all
this great stuff. Thank you, Rabbi.]

Go to the Self Help Legal Clinic
ENTER THE LAW LIBRARY Liberty's Educational Advocacy Forum

Indiana's Fully Informed Jury Association, Inc.

R. J. Tavel
SUBSCRIBE TO Lis-LEAF ALERTS and UPDATES to Learn Electronically About Freedom
©1994-2008 Updated Daily by The OtherOne Computer Consulting International, Ltd.