Tuesday, June 03, 1997

On Language

Rabbi Michael Feshbach
Temple Anshe Hesed
Erie, Pennsylvania

William Safire was in Erie last month. I didn't go to hear him. I would have, for despite disagreeing with him politically, I admire his wit, his words and his weekly column in the New York Times. I would have gone to see him, except that he was speaking on a Friday night. What's the Yiddish phrase? It's tough to be a Jew.
Despite not hearing him, however, just knowing that he was here opened my ear. If I were William Safire, what would I write about. Aha! Just the other day, in his own paper, I found one! One use of language so unconsciously inappropriate as to spark a column.

The article was in the Financial Section of the Times. Not the first place I turn to, to be honest. Let's just say that I read the comics in the New York Times sooner and more frequently than the financial news in any paper. (Hamayvin yavin; those who understand will understand.) But this time, an article caught my eye.

Seven years of plenty, the headline read. It was referring to the stock market. But it was obviously a Biblical reference. To the story of Joseph in Egypt, who interprets Pharoah's dreams of plump and emaciated livestock, and of tall and withered crops, as referring to seven years of plenty, followed by seven years of famine. Sure enough, underneath the headline was the quote from Genesis. The subject was speculation that the years of booming growth on Wall Street might be followed by years of bust. But the article began with a most interesting sentence. It read something like this: "Surely using the Bible to make economic forecasts is a most unorthodox approach."

Is it now? Is it really? Orthodox Keynsians, maybe. But I have met a number of the "original" "Orthodox." And it seems to me that using the Torah to make predictions about the future is, for some of them, precisely an Orthodox thing to do. And the tradition is open, at least metaphorically, to all Jews. My favorite Talmudic sage, selected for my affection simply because of his name, Rabbi Ben Bag Bag, said: "Hafoch bah, v'hafoch bah, v'kulah bah; turn it and turn it (the Torah), for everything is in it." Everything. References to tyrants and triumphs of past and future. The cycle of history. Even tomorrow's stock prices? Yes, some would say (although I am suspicious of such specifics, myself). Even tomorrow's stock prices. If you know how to read it right. Take that, Early Edition!

The subject of the use of the Torah, its scope, its aim, and its prophetic power is a fine topic for another time. This week, however, I want to remain with the irony of language. Thus randomly alerted to an interesting twist on the word "orthodox," from that bastion of secular Jewish reading material, the New York Times, I then turned to an intentionally Jewish publication, Moment magazine. There to find two more examples in the careful, and careless (or, if not careless, then offensive) use of words.

In a dialoge (debate?) between the Orthodox Dr. Stephen Bayme, and the Reform movement's Rabbi Eric Yoffie, both participants were so careful, so attuned to the nuances of what they were saying, that they wound up actually being respectful in disagreement, an accomplishment worth savoring in this overheated war of words between the denominations of late. Both men, because they were concentrating on what they were saying, while tackling a difficult subject (intermarriage and outreach) managed to sound respectful of one another, and looked towards all movements as having the potential to be serious Judaism. Where respect can come through despite differences, hope can find a harbor from the storms of hate. Interesting, then, that in an article about a difficult subject, careful words paved the path for a dialoge that could at least take place.

What, then, are we to say about another article in the same issue. The writer was not trying to be offensive; in fact, he was trying to do a mitzvah. It was an article about matchmakers in the Jewish community. It was an interesting article. But the writer, as have so many others, made clear that there were just two perspectives on Judaism. There was the Orthodox world. And everything else was secular. No possible conception of a non-secular, non Orthodox Jew. Then the icing on the cake, referring to the Orthodox as "religious" couples, in clear contrast with all other Jews.

In Israel, the Orthodox have usurped the word "religious" unto themselves. "Dati" ("religous") simply means Orthodox. But it is precisely that kind of subconscious use of languague that must be brought to light, to reveal the assumptions it conveys, because of all those who do not share those assumptions.

Language creates reality. The world we know is shaped by the words we use. It is precisely why there is so much discussion of languague in our society today, and so much heat (and so little light) surrounding the label of "political correctness." I am the first to agree that some usages of language can go too far for my own personal taste. Until I lost weight, and now, still fighting the battle, I have been a little heavy. I don't need someone to call me circumferentially challenged. Still, for all its potential for parody, the movement of political correctness is, first and foremost, an excercise in the sensitive use of language. It is about the fact that words have implications.

Resistance to the fact that words have implications is resistance to precision, communication, education. It is when people come out and admit that the implications of "insensitive" language are things that they agree with... then we are down to really talking tachlis. Then we are dealing with real issues. And it is at that level we can begin to tell if real respect is possible. If dialog in the face of disagreement is possible. Ultimately, if democracy itself is possible.

From one religious, non-secular, non-Orthodox Jew, to all of you, my best wishes. Happy listening.