Choose Your Words Carefully

I am spending this Shabbat in a crowd of 600, praying, studying, and learning about the intersection of Judaism and modern life and Israel.

It’s a Shabbaton leading up to the AIPAC Policy Conference here in Washington, D.C., and all of the study sessions focus on understanding how we came to this precipice in world matters, and where we must take it from here.

There is much I’d like to write about, but for the purposes of this blog, I’ll focus on how important it is to choose the right words, with two prime examples.

The first is found in this week’s Torah portion, Tetzaveh, Exodus 28:20-30, which focuses in detail on the clothing and adornments of the kohanim. We’ve always translated kohanim as high priests; it’s the class of people who descend from Aaron in the time of the Tabernacle, myself among them. (I am a bat kohain, daughter of a kohain, hence my maiden name of Cohn.)

(Priest, however, is not an apt definition, which will be the subject of another blog soon. We’ll go with it for now, but the better term, according to Rabbi Steven Weil’s d’var Torah last night is role model, mentor, educator.)

There are all sorts of details of the robes and the colorful threads and braided chains. And then there is the breastplate, in Hebrew, hoshen mishpat.

In the translated text I had in services this morning, it’s translated as “the breastpiece of decision.” I wish I were more of a Hebrew scholar so that I could look at the root word and know what its true meaning is. We are always at the mercy of the translators! Those who are expert in the language truly do control the conversation.

And so I did a little digging and learned that a better definition for mishpat is justice, as it is a derivative of the root word shaphat, which means judgment.

So in my translation, someone translated it over and over again as breastpiece of decision. When in reality, words relating to conferring justice or deciding one’s judgment might be more apt.

How does that slight variation in definition change the understanding of the story? Hugely!!

If you see the role of the community role model to be one of passing judgment, you imagine a stern finger-wagging leader. If, however, the person at the helm who is supposed to be educating one and all, wears a breastplate of justice, then that softens the person’s important task, to be equitable to all, inclusive, fair.

See how one slight difference of words changes the entire discussion? One path sets up an us vs. them conflict, a sense of judging and being judged.

The other creates a harmonious picture of mentors looking out for every person in the community.

My second example of the importance of our words comes alongside how we define ourselves as Jews. It’s an age-old question, and in modern times we’ve created this concept of denominations to lump ourselves in with one or another community.

Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative, Orthodox. Humanist, Haredi. Right-wing, centrist, modern. And it goes on.

Lots of terms, with synagogues to follow along each and every definition. And then there are those individuals for whom none of the labels work, either because they are too limiting or because they are a blend of movements, as I say to my kids, “I’m just Jewish.”

That’s what programs like the Adventure Rabbi were created for. You don’t fit into a box? Great! We’re the community for you. Make your own meaning. (Which we all do anyway, but that’s another blog entirely.)

So some people are changing the words. I heard several people refer to themselves and the crowd gathered for the “traditional” services (with the curtain dividing men from women down the center of the room) as “Torah Jews.”

Torah Jews. Implying that they and their compatriots are those who are faithful to the Torah. Implying that anyone outside of this room or this flavor of observance are not faithful to the Torah. Which makes what I’m sure is intended as an inclusive term incredibly exclusive.

My Conservative synagogue, for instance, has no divider between the genders, and we claim to be Torah-followers. Same goes for my dear friends in Reform communities. We simply interpret the Torah with shades of difference from our friends, the “Torah Jews.”

And yet, what connects us all, in addition to biological and ancestral lineage to this tradition, is the Torah itself. So aren’t we all, in every denomination, Torah Jews?

Words are so delicate, so important, so hard to pin down. They can, in the flash of an eye, divide us horribly, never to repair the rift.

There are people so committed to the state of Israel that they move there and, in becoming more and more religious, stop pledging allegiance to the modern state of Israel and take to calling it eretz Yisroel, the land of Israel, because their tradition tells them there cannot be a political state of Israel until the Messiah returns to lead us all into peace.

Simple words change the meaning, change the conversation, divide people.

Think about that next time you craft a sentence. Carefully string the words together and think first of the impact once they are spoken into the air. Will they unite? Or will they divide?

As my late grandmother used to say, Out of your mouth, printed. Once you speak it, you can’t get it back. It forever changes the course of everything that follows. Words matter more than you can ever imagine.

Bergen Evans, a 20th century American writer and educator, once said, “Words are one of our chief means of adjusting to all the situations of life. The better control we have over words, the more successful our adjustment is likely to be.”

That, and we will win more friends when we use a language of inclusivity and thus be closer to having a chance of actually healing this crazy world.

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