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Opinion | In the Jewish Tradition, the Words We Choose Matter

The Torah begins with the world being created by words. “Let there be” is the recurring refrain. God names each item — Light. Day. Night. Darkness. Earth. Sea. Heaven. From this emerges the concept that words can build or destroy.

Words matter. Every letter in the Torah is believed to have significance, and every word is essential. There are no errors. The idea of precision is so important in the Jewish origin story that we have pages of commentaries, stories, explanations and laws when an extra letter is added onto a phrase. While some critical readers of the Torah define extra letters, words and redundancy as scribal errors, there is a deep spiritual practice in combing through phrases, repetitions and words. We find meaning to justify each phrase; each phrase justifies its meaning.

It is difficult to reconcile this deep relationship between word and meaning with a 21st-century culture of using words as if they do not matter. Last week the Jewish world erupted after Whoopi Goldberg, a co-host of “The View,” used ill-informed words on the show to describe the Holocaust, saying the genocide was “not about race” and was, instead, essentially a case of infighting between two groups of white people. A flurry of conversations, articles and rage emerged in response. The words evoked fear and reflections on antisemitism, and revealed ignorance of the history of race (and genocide).

The Talmud teaches, “The world exists only in the merit of the person who restrains him or herself at the time of an argument” (Chullin 89a). Words create narratives. Words have the ability to disrupt, provoke and uproot, and in a world that is divided, they can cause terrible harm. Building false narratives about Jews — or any other group for that matter — can destroy. In Nazi Germany, Jews were dehumanized first by words as they were described as rats, defiling society. Dehumanizing another by using words can help categorize a people as less than, thus normalizing horrific acts. Of course Jews are not the only people to have been leveled by words. Indeed, throughout history efforts to separate cultural, religious, ethnic or racial groups from one another — consider Rwanda or the Balkans — have often begun with dehumanizing descriptions and unraveled from there. Words can highlight vulnerability and trigger attack.

Though Ms. Goldberg had no intent to deny the Holocaust, the gaps in knowledge she was forced to reconcile exposed a different lack of understanding: the degree of trauma Jews carry around all the time.

Since the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting in 2018, the need for heightened security has increased the feeling among Jews that we are in existential danger. We have a history as a people of not being fully accepted into the places we call home. There is a weariness and a wariness in the Jewish community; much as for other minority groups, there is a feeling of never quite being able to rest.

How can we? In mid-January a man walked into a synagogue in Colleyville, Texas, and terrorized a rabbi and three congregants for 11 hours. Two weeks later, in Washington, D.C., the city where I live and worship, the city’s landmark train station was defaced by swastikas, and two Chicago synagogues and a Jewish high school were vandalized. Each incident pulls us back, echoing darkly for us the racist narratives that targeted Jews through history, and in the not-so-distant past, causing us, at various times, to lose our right to citizenship, our right to work and finally our right to live. This year the Church of England has promised that a formal apology is forthcoming to the Jews for the medieval antisemitic laws that led to their expulsion in 1290. Groups in Britain say the history of antisemitism in that country, set in motion 800 years ago, cast a shadow to this day.

Let me be clear: We are, thank God, certainly not in a time resembling 1937 Germany or medieval England. But there is good reason our community has never quite been able to calm our instinct toward fight or flight. That is why moments of misunderstanding projected from a national platform — let alone having synagogues terrorized — are never just about that one incident. They evoke a traumatized past that has never healed.

Jews care about not just the words that hurt, but also those meant to mollify. Ms. Goldberg’s apology — “I said the Holocaust wasn’t about race and was instead about man’s inhumanity to man. But it is indeed about race because Hitler and the Nazis considered Jews to be an inferior race” — has itself been dissected and analyzed. Has it gone far enough? Had her original words had more impact than her apology could? Did it represent real “teshuvah,” a real desire to atone, through understanding? I believe it did. I believe there needs to be a space for error and apology in our society.

Teshuvah is the process of regretting, renouncing, confessing, reconciling and making amends. Ms. Goldberg regretted her words, renounced what she said, confessed in public, reconciled by educating herself on national television and sought to make amends. “Teshuvah shleimah” — a complete teshuvah — is when we are in the same situation again and we choose to act differently. Then we know that our internal work has taken effect.

The Jewish tradition asks me to guard my tongue, to be careful of what I say, of promises I make. If these promises are said with God’s name, I must carry out the actions promised by my words. In this time of social platforms that influence millions, pausing before we speak and taking words seriously might not be such a bad thing. Indeed it might do the work of repairing the world.

Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt is a co-senior rabbi at Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, D.C.

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