Sermon – On Swearing

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 8 June 2012

This has been a big week for news – a series of huge, momentous, even ‘once in a lifetime’ stories. A diamond jubilee – only the second in history; unlikely ever to be repeated; The transit of Venus – next taking place when I will be 143 years old; The village of Dull in Perthshire becoming twinned with the American town of Boring in Oregon… surely one of the news highlights of the year.

And in sports news, something less unusual, with England preparing for Euro 2012 with the classic combination of injury and calamity.

So it was hardly surprising that a small story about the North Yorkshire Northern football League slipped by almost unnoticed.  From the beginning of next season, this league will employ a team of secret fans – or spies – who will report on the bad language being used by players and managers.  Swearing has become commonplace in football, as in life, and this small league is standing up against it.

Unbeknownst to league chairman Mike Amos, his hard-line stance against bad language, his opinion that swearing is unacceptable, has some support in Jewish tradition.

The importance of how we speak, the things we say – to and about one another – is a highly developed area of Jewish ethics.  The unlikely pitch-side call “Oi, watch your tongue”, in Hebrew is the value of Shmirat HaLashon – guarding our tongues.  The main area in the ethics of speech surrounds the prohibitions of Lashon Hara – literally evil tongue – and rechilut – talebearing.  To gossip, or to report derogatory information about someone else – even if it is true – is considered to be an incredibly bad thing to do within Jewish law.  The Chafetz Chaim, the nineteenth/twentieth century Lithuanian rabbi whose books are the authoritative works on the ethics of speech, lists 31 different Mitzvot that may be violated when someone speaks or listens to lashon hara. And, among the core texts for the prohibition on gossip and slanderous speech, is the section of this morning’s portion in which Miriam and Aaron speak against Moses.  God, you will recall, gets mighty angry, and takes it out on Miriam – oddly, not on Aaron as well, though that is for another day.  In Deuteronomy (24:9) we are cautioned “Remember what God did to Miriam on the way as you came out of Egypt” – and this is understood as a statement of the negative Mitzvah – the prohibition – of Lashon Hara.  Indeed, Lashon Hara is serious enough, according to the commentators, that Miriam was punished severely even though she had quite a good track record up to that point, even though Moses himself didn’t mind, and even though her crime had not been a major one – all she had done according to some commentaries was to compare Moses to other men.

So how we speak matters enormously in Jewish thought.  One rabbinic dictum (Ketubot 5b) asks why our fingers are created like spikes.  The answer, so that is we hear something that is not appropriate, we can stick them in our ears!  To the ancient sage, this also explains why we have earlobes.

And this also applies to bad language – in Jewish tradition known as nivul peh or a vulgar mouth.

One piece of early rhetoric about foul language comes from the minor tractate of the Babylonian Talmud, Derech Eretz Rabbah (3:3).  There, Rabbi Elazar ben Yaakov compares a righteous man who lets out an unbecoming word to a big beautiful palace into the centre of which a tannery vat is placed.  In other words, the use of rough language is like a pipe spewing foul smells into a beautiful room.

Elsewhere the rhetoric is even more hyperbolic.  In a baraita – an early rabbinic tradition quoted in the Babylonian Talmud (Shabbat 33a) foul language is seen as a cause of suffering in Israel: Ba’avon navlut peh, tzarot rabot, u’gzerot kashot mitchadshot – Because of the sin of obscene language, hardships multiply and harsh decrees are started.  These, the baraita goes on to tell us include the deaths of young men, and inattention to the needs of the vulnerable in society.

Of great symbolic importance, this prohibition, too, is understood as found within Torah, though rather more circuitously.  In the Deuteronomic laws of going to war (Deuteronomy 23:15) the people are instructed to ensure that the camp is holy so that God will stay with them in their battles: Lo yireh b’cha ervat davar – so that God not see among you anything unseemly.  The midrash (Vayikra Rabbah 24:7) hears the davar – the unseemly thing as dibbur – unseemly speech, obscene talk.  Foul language prevents the camp from being holy – even in a time of war, when such things might be considered less significant.

Why the need to place this prohibition within Torah?  And why such extreme rhetoric?  To make us take this issue seriously – one assumes because this was not always the case – as today.  But why?  Why is bad language important?

Maimonides, the great Jewish philosopher and halachist of the early middle ages explains in his Guide of the Perplexed (3:8) that language is what differentiates us from the rest of creation, a marker of our special divine nature.  “This benefit,” he states “is granted to us with a view to perfection in order that we learn and teach”.  It should not, therefore, be used badly – not used basely – to the extent that Maimonides himself advocates the extensive use of euphemisms.  The underlying idea is that language is distinctive to our special status as human beings, granted by God – if we degrade this, we degrade our very humanity.  As such, swearing is also considered to be an act of Chilul Hashem – of desecration of the divine name – of bringing God into disrepute.  If we swear we diminish that which God has given us, and thereby also God.

So, how we speak matters – it can do damage both actual and symbolic.  It says something about who we are and what we think is important – it is a feature of our very humanity.  Avoiding nivul peh is not a particular forte of mine.  But, as a Jew it is clear that this is something on which I, we, should work.  Maybe even starting this week? Judaism applauds Mike Amos and the Northern League on their stance, even if it got little public attention.  It is worth remembering the words of Rabbi Elazar ben Yaakov.  If the use of foul language is like a pipe spewing smells into a beautiful palace – the same is definitely true for the beautiful game.