Friday, August 5, 2011

Devarim 5771 - Talk is Cheap: Word Inflation

I’m not much of a talker. Really, I consider myself very bad at small talk. I just can’t kibitz.

But that might be because I grew up in rural New England, where silence really truly was golden. My parents, city folk from Boston, they are the loquacious sort. My brother, sister, and I - the strong, silent type. Better a stiff upper lip. We were direct, short and to the point, and small talk was avoided unless absolutely necessary. But that is not typical for our people.

Woody Allen once quipped that his Jewish ancestors, responding to pogroms and other forms of anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe, had to be quick with words: they learned how to talk their way out of a tight spot.

As Jews, we understand the value of words. Yes, we are the “People of the Book,” (a moniker bestowed upon us by the Muslims, by the way). But our words are central to our faith. Which is all the more reason for us to be concerned about the future of the word. But I’ll come back to that.

Here are some of the primary ways in which our tradition elevates words:

1. We offer the words of our lips in place of sacrifice; the amidot that we recite every day are in place of the sacrifices that took place in the Temple in Jerusalem. This is the hallmark of rabbinic Judaism, the Jewish practice that emerged in the wake of the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE (which we commemorate on Tuesday, when we observe Tish'ah Be'Av) - that words are the primary medium of our relationship with God. Gershom Sholem once described normative Judaism as only allowing words to bridge the gap between us and God.

2. Not only this, but all of our rituals involve words. From the Pesah seder to the vidui confessions of Yom Kippur, from the most seemingly insignificant berakhah to the soaring recitation of Tal, the prayer for dew, we mark our holy moments with liturgy, the words of tefillah / prayer.

3. We read the Torah cover to cover each year, interpreting and re-interpreting, commenting and agreeing and disagreeing and occasionally taking it out to parade it around and dance with it. The Torah contains (according to the Masoretic note at the end) 79,856 words, but it has yielded millions upon millions of others.

4. We highlight study and learning above all other mitzvot: the rabbinic principle of Talmud Torah keneged kulam (the study of Torah outweighs all other mitzvot / commandments) speaks to the centrality of the word in Jewish life and tradition. Everything we do comes, in some way, from the Jewish bookshelf, and we continually revisit these texts to learn more.

5. And, understanding the harm that words can cause, we also prohibit lashon hara, gossip, motzi shem ra, slander, nibbul peh, having a detestable mouth, and of course taking God’s name in vain.

The opening of the book of Devarim / Deuteronomy, which we read this morning, is Elleh ha-devarim. These are the words, said Moshe. Or maybe, the concepts. The ideas. The actions associated with these commandments. Because a word, in Jewish tradition, is not just a word.

One ironic idiosyncracy of the rabbi standing before you is that while I am lousy at small talk, I love words. I have often fantasized about being the next author of the pseudonymous Philologos column in the Forward, which (I have on good authority) is written by the author Hillel Halkin. So please consider the following lexical diversion a sort of audition:

The Hebrew “davar” can be read in multiple ways. In modern Hebrew, a “davar” is a thing, and usually a “millah” is a word. But in the ancient language of the Torah, a “davar” can be read as either a word, or a matter or affair.

Those of you who are Hebrew grammar buffs know that the most common verbal form of “davar” is ledabber, to speak. But that is in the pi’el, or intensive conjugation. In the rare qal or regular conjugation, the (theoretical) infinitive is lidbor, which might be translated as “to have the ability to speak, although not currently engaged in doing so.” One might make the observation that a “davar,” a word or matter, is more clearly connected to the qal verb. That is, the word or concept exists, but not until it is actually pronounced aloud does it become “dibbur,” speech.

Rashi, Rav Shelomo Yitzhaqi, the celebrated 11th century French wine merchant, was the first to give a running commentary to the Torah and hence democratize the learning of Torah and Talmud for all generations to come. Rashi describes his guiding principle in a comment to Genesis 3:8:

ואני לא באתי אלא לפשוטו של מקרא, ולאגדה המיישבת דברי המקרא - דבר דבור על אופניו

“I have come only to teach the plain meaning of the passage, and such Aggadah [stories] that settles the words of the Scripture, each word in its proper way.”

Rashi’s last four words, “davar davur al ofnav,” might be translated as “a word worded in its way.” Each word, says Rashi, has a simple, contextual meaning, dictated by the way that the Torah has applied it. His job as a commentator, and that of all Torah commentators who followed him, is to be sensitive to the word and its context. Every word is powerful by itself, but it does not stand alone; it is supported by the verbal structure around it.

A midrash about the opening of Parashat Devarim connects the word “davar” with “devorah,” a bee. The words of Torah can be sweet like honey; but if we stray from them, they can sting like bees.

Judaism elevates the word; we understand that words have power. The written word is concept; for the spoken word, which puts the concept into action, the stakes are even higher.

Which is all the more reason for concern regarding the future of the word, both written and spoken. Frankly, I’m worried. Verbal inflation has arrived. The word is being rapidly devalued. As with money, when you have more in circulation, every greenback is worth less. And there’s no debt ceiling with words.

Ladies and gentlemen, the world is changing. We are the witnesses to an unprecedented paradigm shift, as the printed word eases its way out of this world, replaced by its electronic cousin.

Is it possible that with the explosion of news sources, entertainment options, and Internet search engines that seem to read our minds rather than our keystrokes, that we are gradually losing ourselves in a sea of information?

As text messages multiply, content aggregators aggregate, and newspapers around the world go out of business, we have to face the uncomfortable reality that the way in which all of us here over 30 years of age acquired information, is going the way of the typewriter and the rotary-dial telephone.

When Moshe Rabbeinu, Moses our teacher, stood before the Israelites, knowing that he would die before they entered the land of Israel, he laid before them a whole book of words, a series of commandments. Elleh ha-devarim, he said. The Greek name for this book is Deutoronomy, meaning, “second law.” Many of the commandments laid down in the fifth book of the Torah were already given in the previous four, but many were not. It was a final parting gift of tremendous value, a gift platter loaded with the most potent, well-chosen ancient Hebrew words / concepts / commandments / affairs that Moshe could deliver. Elleh ha-devarim. These are the words.

Estimates are that today, total global data storage is on the order of zettabytes - that is, trillions of gigabytes - 10^21 characters. We have no choice but to ignore nearly all of them. We search through volumes of them online to find only what we want; we save multiple copies of them throughout the cyber-cloud; estimates are that as much as 70% of those stored zettabytes is actually redundant material.

The cheapening of words has social consequences: we listen to national politicians abuse words by selling us one story while executing another. We watch helplessly as the words of the State of Israel, its government ministers, its spokespeople, its regular Jews, are openly doubted in the press and in mainstream thought.

Chancellor Arnold Eisen of the Jewish Theological Seminary has recently begun blogging, and I have very much enjoyed reading his pieces on the state of the Conservative movement and ideas for its future. He posts a new article every week.

His last two articles have been about tefillah / prayer, and how to reinvigorate it in the Conservative movement. I was struck by one of the comments left by a reader, who was obviously inspired by the level of discourse achieved in the discussion thread about last week’s post. He wrote, “Finally, in the last 3 or 4 weeks, I believe this has turned into a real conversation.”

Now, I suppose it is wonderful that the blog discussion has yielded what at least one reader thinks is a “conversation.” But it is hard for me, lapsed Luddite that I am, to see how comments posted on a website, pixels on a screen, can equal the real-time give-and-take to be found in an actual conversation. I have found that online discussions are more often merely people with extreme views talking past each other.

I have to be careful not to confuse the medium with the message. Nonetheless, I fear that words have become devalued, because there are just too many of them. How can we possibly stay on top of all of the electronic clutter? How can we filter the signal from the noise? In the future, how will we know who to believe, who to trust, if all pixels are equally bright?

Given our history and tradition, what can we do in the face of word inflation? What must we do to combat this cheapening of the word? We have to return to our texts, to study them again, to turn them over and over. We have to recommit to Jewish learning, to being sensitive to the meanings of our words. We have to drag our friends to adult ed classes, to cajole our teenagers to enroll in the Youth House, to urge our college students and young adults to find an open-minded place to learn Torah and Talmud. We have to learn more Hebrew, our language. We have to truly rejoice in the rolling of the Torah back to the beginning on Simhat Torah, and start all over again with Bereshit / Genesis.

If we allow our words to be devalued, our rich tradition will not survive another generation. So please forgive me if I fail at small talk - I am simply trying to maintain the value of words.

Shabbat shalom.

(Originally delivered at Temple Israel of Great Neck, Shabbat morning, 8/6/2011.)

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