My mother came from a kosher home—not that my grandmother understood the “what” or the “why” of that particular mitzvah. Nevertheless, when my mother married, out of respect for my grandmother, she intended to keep a kosher home as well. During a luncheon my newlywed mother gave for her friends and female relatives, one of the women used a knife delegated for meat dishes to cut a dairy cake. Seeing that, my grandmother exclaimed to my mother, “This is how you keep kosher? I’ll never eat in your house again.”
My mother was well into her 60’s and my grandmother was long dead when my mom told me that story. But, I could still hear the pain in my mother’s voice and see the anguish in her eyes. “What was the big deal?” she murmured. “I could have taken the knife and thrust it into the earth to purify it.” I did not grow up in a kosher home. Well, that’s not entirely true. We only ate kosher meat and there was no mixing of meat and dairy. I guess it was kind of a low level of kosher. As a result, years later when I brought a non-kosher box of cookies to my orthodox 1st grade class party, I was publicly admonished and humiliated. I never returned, despite the rabbi’s pleas. I may have shared that particular incident before, but both stories illustrate a point I wish to make. It is about the Talmudic teaching of ona’at devarim—loosely translated as hurting, humiliating or demeaning another person through words. There is a great deal of that going on these days.
We seem now to be in an environment where it is acceptable to demean and humiliate those with whom you disagree, often with half-truths, if not outright lies! Unfortunately, a number of our citizens lack the ability or the interest in discovering what the truth of an issue might be—especially if it runs counter to what they “feel” is the truth. Well my friends, regardless of which end of the political spectrum you find yourselves aligned with, this is just not the Jewish thing to do.
Talmudic ethics demand many things in our behavior towards others and our community—too many to enumerate here. But violating the admonition against ona’at devarim can be seen daily in just about every communication we read. Social media has become a venue for people to spew vile insinuations and accusations about those they don’t like. And books and articles espouse the destruction of the “other” philosophy.
Judaism teaches restraint and, as a society, we have become divorced from that concept. Now I would be remiss if I did not say how often I wished to join in the barrage of angry comments about one thing or another; but does it really do any good?
How restrained are we in our responses to things that anger us? Are we able to tame the anger? If it is about an injustice, what can we do to rectify it; if it is about a perceived attack or threats, how can we rightfully respond? As Jews, we have a tough task—not to demean, for we are then demeaned; not to insinuate or belittle for then we are belittled. We are tasked to do rather than complain. Difficult? Yes. But as Jews we should never stoop to the lowest common denominator of human behavior. It’s just not Talmudic!
Florence L. Dann, a fifth year rabbinical student at the Academy for Jewish Religion in LA has been a contributing writer to Jlife since 2004.