February 11, 2022

The Power of Speech

By Simon Eder

The UK’s House of Commons has seen the most extraordinary escalation of language recently. The Westminster leader of the Scottish Nationalist Party, Ian Blackford accused the Prime Minister of ‘’wilfully misleading’’ MPs in relation to the Downing Street Party allegations and refusing to retract the comments was ordered out of the chamber. The normally rambunctious exchanges between the leaders of the two main parties have been particularly uproarious of late and of course has also included the Prime Minister’s slur against the leader of the opposition for failing to prosecute the notorious paedophile, Jimmy Savile, when he was director of public prosecutions. This now discredited allegation has drawn widespread criticism from across the political spectrum. This arousing of ugly emotions, followed days later by the Labour leader being accosted by a mob in Westminster shouting similar discredited accusations, alerts us to the importance of speech in the public sphere.

Such rhetoric certainly has its more extreme echoes in the era of Trump’s hateful presidential speech. Thank goodness that time we would regularly see his evocations of strong emotion in demotic language across our television screens has now gone. We do however do well to remain ever vigilant to the excesses of language which all too easily can lead to despotism. Victor Klemperer, the literary historian, who found acclaim for his diary charting the twelve years of the Third Reich is perhaps the most crucial reference in this regard. In a far lesser known book The Language of The Third Reich, published shortly after the war, he records how certain words in various forms – Volk, fanatisch became ubiquitous in both public and private; how religious terms imbued the ruling ideology; how euphemisms such as evacuation and concentration camp were coined to make horrific crimes seem bureaucratically legitimate; how Nazi language became a total system outside of which Germans could no longer think, and which did the thinking for them, to the bitter end.(1)

Judaism itself is a sustained meditation on the power of speech.

Klemperer highlights what happens when language is abused, allowed to penetrate a society and nothing short of hell on earth ensues. Jewish tradition goes to extraordinary efforts to raise the serious concerns of evil speech, lashon hara. Indeed, according to the Talmud, it is as bad as the terrible sins of idol worship, killing and illicit sexual relations all put together.(2) It is prohibited to live amongst those with a wicked tongue or even sit with them and listen to their words.(3) There are also a litany of examples throughout the sources indicating the severe punishments that are entailed when calumny is spoken. Rabbi Shimon ben Pazi for example said: ‘’The rains are withheld only due to the sin of those who speak slander, as it is stated: ‘’The north wind brings forth rain, but a backbiting tongue, an angry countenance.’’(Proverbs 25:23)(4) In further instances, we are cautioned against the disparagement even of the deceased. Rav Pappa for example said: ‘’There was once someone who spoke disparagingly after the death of Mar Shmuel and a reed fell from the ceiling, fracturing his skull’’(5)

The reason of course why there is such emphasis within the tradition on keeping a check on evil speech is that Judaism itself is a sustained meditation on the power of speech. The very opening of the Hebrew Bible shows that God used words to create the world. It is with a series of His utterances that the days of creation proceed – ‘’Let there be light”; and there was light’’(6);  ‘’God said, “Let there be an expanse in the midst of the water, that it may separate water from water”(7); God said, “Let the water below the sky be gathered into one area, that the dry land may appear.” And it was so(8). Indeed, commenting on these very words the New Testament’s Gospel According to John has as its opening line: ‘’In the beginning was the Word was with God, and the Word was God.’’(9)

Greek refers to human beings as zoon phonanta or ‘’language animals’’. The Targum’s translation of the phrase, “And man became a living creature” (Genesis 2:7) as “a speaking spirit.” has then a parallel with the Greek. It is God’s bestowal of speech following human creation that of course distinguishes them from other creatures and thereby enabling humankind their capacity for the creative process. As George Steiner beautifully asserts in his essay Tritones ‘’No other species, no pre-linguistic mentality can aspire to this evolutionary magic. Every future tense, every if-clause is a rebellion against the blind despotism of the organic. It is not only the Burning Bush which proclaims ‘I shall be/what I shall be’. It is man when he speaks the word ‘tomorrow’.’’(10) What Steiner posits here is the profound idea that human speech is indeed the very emulation of the Divine. Further on in his essay he draws on the kabbalistic notion that thought, which is itself language, precedes actualisation and in a powerful and evocative paragraph on love he shares, ‘’inwardly or outwardly we articulate our longings before we fulfil them.’’(11)

Language, of course, in Jewish tradition is not only about the creative process but revelation too. The Bible is a record of our ancestors’ dialogue with God. More than 2000 times we encounter phrases such as ‘’And God spoke to Moses’’ or ‘’the word of the Lord came to Jonah’’. Certainly the supreme example of God’s speech to the people is the revelation at Mount Sinai, which according to the words of Deuteronomy recall: ‘’The Lord spoke to you out of the fire. You heard the sound of words but saw no form; there was only a Voice.’’(12)

Ever since Sinai, the content of revelation has been debated. One famous midrash has it that nothing from the mouth of God other than the letter ‘alef’ of the first utterance ‘Anochi’ was heard. What followed, as the philosopher Rosenzweig has it, expanding upon this understanding, was all commentary. According to Rabbi Yochanan in another midrash: ‘’When God’s voice came forth at Mt. Sinai, it divided itself into 70 human languages, so that the whole world might understand it. All at Mt. Sinai, young and old, women, children, and infants according to their ability to understand. Moses too, understood only according to his capacity, as it is said (Ex. 19:19), ‘Moses spoke and God answered him with a voice.’ With a voice that Moses could hear.”(13) Whilst the content of revelation remains to this day contentious, what is undisputed is the sanctity with which we continue to uphold the power of the word. We are after all the people of the Book!

Language has the power to both create and destroy worlds.

Given all this, it is perhaps little wonder that some of the great thinkers on the ideas of language should have heralded from Jewish origin. The philosopher of language, Wittgenstein’s assertion that: ‘’the limits of your language are the limits of your world’’ is no major leap from Biblical and Talmudic sources. One cannot help feeling that the father of modern linguistics, Noam Chomsky’s upbringing sparked at least a contribution to the development of his new cognitivistic framework for the study of language and mind. It is no surprise too that despite Freud’s public shunning of religion, psychoanalysis, the ‘talking therapy’,  was also known as the ‘Jewish science’. In fact it was his daughter, Anna, who in 1977 said that this term should serve as a ‘title of honour’.

Language has the power to both create and destroy worlds. It has the ability to cast us in the most reviled light but it also has the power to refine and ennoble too. There are two statements that encapsulate these very notions. The first from the Book of Proverbs has it that ‘’death and life are in the power of the tongue’’(14) and the second from Psalms declares: “Whoever of you loves life and desires to see many good days, keep your tongue from evil and your lips from telling lies.”(15) In these lines are perhaps the clue as to why the tradition so venerates the study of its texts and the perpetual recitation of its liturgy. For, it is surely in mining the sources for inspiration, uncovering ever new meaning and allowing our souls to be bathed in its majestic poetry that we attach ourselves to the very wellsprings of life itself.

Whenever we witness vile speech in the public realm therefore, let us voice our condemnation with dignity. Let it serve as a reminder at redoubling our efforts to purify the words that we utter. May we also remember at all times, wherever we are and before whoever we stand, the meditation we say at the start of the Amidah prayer: ‘’My Lord, open my lips, that my mouth may declare your praise.’’(16)

(1) George Packer, The Atlantic, The Left Needs a Language Potent Enough to Counter Trump
(2) Arakhin 15b
(3) Arakhin 15a
(4) Taanit 7b:7
(5) Berakhot 19a:2-5
(6) Genesis 1:3
(7) Genesis 1:7
(8) Genesis 1:9
(9) John 1:1
(10) Steiner, Tritones, p.55-56
(11) Steiner, Tritones, p.56
(12) Deuteronomy 4:12
(13) Midrash Exodus Rabbah 5:9
(14) Proverbs 18:21
(15) Psalms 34:14-15
(16) Psalms 51:17

Simon Eder is Editorial Director of Jewish Quest. He writes regularly for the site and has written for the Judaism column of the Jewish Chronicle. He is a founder of the Jewish Community in Dubai and due to feature in a documentary later this year.