The Power of Words to do Harm

Written by Rabbi Elliott Karstadt — 19 February 2023

This week we reach the end of our current course of the Alyth Chavruta Project, in which we have been studying the famous story in which Rabbi Eliezer is excommunicated by the other rabbis. For those who don’t know the story, the context is a debate about a certain type of oven: is it liable to being impure, or not. It’s not the most riveting debate, and for us as modern progressive Jews, there really isn’t very much riding on the outcome of their debate.

But, I don’t think that’s the point anyway. I think the point is not the legal outcome of their debate, but the manner in which the debate takes place.

The Talmud tells us that Rabbi Eliezer brought every argument that he could to prove his point. When the other rabbis do not accept his arguments, he turns to magic to try to get them to accept his side. First he uproots a carob tree, but they do not accept that as proof. Then he makes a river flow backwards, but again they do not accept it as proof.

In desperation, Rabbi Eliezer calls out and says, ‘If I am right, let the walls of the House of Study prove it.’ At which point, the walls of the Study Hall start to bend inwards. They totter, on the edge of falling, when another rabbi, Rabbi Yehoshua, stands up and says to the walls: ‘When the rabbis are arguing about matters of Jewish law, what does it have to do with you?’ At which point, the walls become still. Disaster is averted. The walls remain leaning – it is said they remain standing for the honour of Rabbi Yehoshua, but they continue to stand at an angle, for the honour of rabbi Eliezer.

Still not defeated, Rabbi Eliezer makes a final appeal to heaven. ‘If I am right, let it be proved from heaven.’  At which point, a voice comes down from heaven, confirming that Rabbi Eliezer’s view is correct. Rabbi Yehoshua stands up again, and declares: ‘It is not in heaven.’ Meaning that the heavens no longer have the ability to sway human decision-making. It is up to the rabbis how they define God’s laws.

There ends the argument. The rabbis have prevailed over Rabbi Eliezer and God. And there usually the story ends, in a way that really seems to suit our progressive Jewish values – we are the ones to forge our own paths, and no voice from heaven is able to dictate to us.

And yet, as it is told in the Talmud, the story does not end there. It goes on to describe how the other rabbis gather together everything that Rabbi Eliezer ever declared pure, and burn it in front of him. They vote on him and excommunicate him, shunning him and excluding him from their rabbinic community. Even when he sits on his deathbed, they stay four cubits away from him.

As is often the case, I think the Talmud is here giving us an example of how not to behave. Nowhere in this story do its human characters act towards each other with anything like respect. None of the rabbis defends Rabbi Eliezer. None of them suggest that it is enough to have rejected his arguments and that there is no need to burn the other things he has declared pure.

Those who are perceptive will have picked up on the only time in which respect and honour is shown in this story, and that is when the walls remain standing out of respect for Rabbi Yehoshua, but stand leaning out of respect for Rabbi Eliezer. The walls have a sensitivity to the suffering of human beings – while the fellow human beings continue to stand without any consideration for the way in which their words affect one another.

This is a story about the power of words – about our ability to harm each other not only physically but with language. ‘Sticks and stones will break my bones, but your words will never hurt me.’ So the saying goes. A nice line – but so, so untrue.

The Talmudic imperative not to harm each other with words is based, at least in part, on a verse from this week’s Torah portion: Do not mistreat the stranger, nor oppress them.’ This is the first verse that Alex will be reading tomorrow morning from the Torah.

So, the emphasis that is put on what the rabbis call ona’at devarim (wrongdoing with words) is a deeply, deeply held Jewish value. And yet, in each generation we have to be reminded of it. Because it is so easy to fail.

This is often made into an injunction against gossiping, and talking about people behind their back. But the story of rabbi Eliezer tells us that it is also something that happens in public. When we are in private it is often easier to remember each other’s humanity. When we speak in a public forum, we can often forget that the person we are speaking to is human, just as easily harmed as at other times.

We should remember the power of our words, and we should remember our own vulnerability to the harm they can cause, rather than pretending that we are invincible – another very tempting remedy. For in the same Torah reading tomorrow, we will hear: ‘Do not oppress the stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.’

Shabbat Shalom