Speech, Suspicion, and Security

My God, help me remember that “just as the hand can kill, so can
the tongue,” tweet, blog, or Congressional hearing….

Update from House Committee on Homeland Security — “On March 10, the Committee will convene the first in a series of hearings examining radicalization in the American Muslim community and the community’s response to it. Additional information about this hearing will be distributed in the coming days.”

(Jump to “Meditation for Early Spring 2011”)

Prayer as Guideline for Speech and Action

What, if anything, is required of non-Muslims as the Homeland Security Committee of the U.S. Congress prepares for national hearings on “Islamic Radicalization”? I found some guidance in the meditation which follows the formal Amidah [Standing Prayer] in many Jewish prayerbooks.

Here is that prayerbook meditation and the guidelines it suggested to me, a new meditation for this precarious time in our nation, and brief additional background on guarding the tongue in Jewish teaching. This is offered from a Jewish perspective, but I believe the guidelines and prayer can be used by anyone interested.

If you do use this material for study or prayer, please let me and others know by commenting below.

If you are interested in joining a Washington, DC, or virtual “unity pray-in” as the hearings progress, please contact songeveryday at gmail.com or visit Facebook

My God, guard my speech from evil and my lips from deception.
Before those who slander me, I will hold my tongue; I will practice humility.
Open my heart to Your Torah, that I may pursue Your mitzvot.
As for all who think evil of me,
cancel their designs and frustrate their schemes….
–the meditation of Mar son of Rabina
translation and transliteration (below) from Mishkan T’filah*

Rabbi Reuven Hammer offers two pertinent notes on this meditation in Or Hadash: A Commentary on Siddur Sim Shalom:*

my tongue from evil. Before asking that we not be injured by others, we ask that we be enabled to control our own actions, and especially our own speech. As the rabbis taught, “Life and death are in the power of the tongue.” (See Arakhin 15a-b).

Help me ignore those who slander me. …we learn to restrain ourselves and depend on God. This is in reference to oneself, however, and not to evil or slander done to others. In such cases we must speak out.

In light of these comments, the first two lines of Mar bar Rabina’s meditation suggest to me the following guidelines for this particular juncture in U.S. history:

1) Care in our own speech — tweeting, blogging, writing for print, creating multimedia materials, and/or sharing materials created by others — in reference to other faith communities, particularly Islam and Muslims;

2) Examination of words — direct and implied — used to describe other faiths and their practitioners by groups, congregations, religious and political movements, etc. in which we participate;


3) Speaking out against the direct and implied slander of a U.S. governmental body singling out one religious tradition as potential enemies of the state.

Additional Concerns of the Tongue

The third line of Mar bar Rabina’s meditation suggests that we might profitably review Jewish teaching about careful speech (See also below): Judaism prohibits listening to “evil speech” as well as issuing it, for example. In addition, Judaism prohibits spreading suspicion, as does Islam. Moreover, Jewish tradition warns that injuries through the tongue (lies, “evil speech” and related ills) are harder to stop and to heal than injuries of the hand. At this historical juncture, I suggest, Jewish tradition demands we consider:

4) Acknowledging that irreparable harm to millions of U.S. citizens, as well as other Muslims around the world, is being planned in the name of “homeland security” (security for whom?);

5) Insisting that innuendo and casting of aspersion on a wide swath of citizenry is unconscionable;


6) Demanding that the calumny planned by our government be stopped.

With the fourth line of the meditation, we put ourselves into God’s care, and I believe Mar bar Rabina’s meditation can remind us that we are not there alone.

With these guidelines in mind, here, is a special meditation for this difficult time for our country.

Meditation for Early Spring 2011

My God, help me remember that “just as the hand can kill, so can
the tongue,” tweet, blog, or Congressional hearing.
Help me examine my own words and those of collectives in which I participate.
Guide me to recognize and effectively oppose unnecessary verbal harm.
Open my heart to learning and practicing better ways of communicating across
myriad differences in this country and beyond.
May awareness that we’re all one before You frustrate the schemes
of any who would divide us.

See also Shoulder to Shoulder, All Faiths and Philosophies, for a prayer focusing on the new moon and the scheduled start of the Homeland Security Committee hearings.

Background on Prayer and Speech

My God, guard my speech from evil and my lips from deception.
Before those who slander me, I will hold my tongue; I will practice humility.
Open my heart to Your Torah, that I may pursue Your mitzvot.
As for all who think evil of me,
cancel their designs and frustrate their schemes….

“Elohai, n’tzor l’shoni meira us’fatai midabeir mirmah, v’limkal’lai nafshi tidom, v’nafshi ke-afar lakol tih-yeh. P’tach libi b’Toratecha, uv’mitzvotecha tirdof nafshi. V’chol hachoshvim alai rash, m’heirah hafeir atzatam v’kalkeil machashavtam….”
–translation and transliteration, Mishkan T’filah*
back to guidelines

The Babylonian Talmud (Berakhot 16b-17a)** offers examples of Amidah-concluding meditations used by a variety of teachers:

Many of the rabbis pray for increased Torah understanding, humility, and avoidance of sin. Rabbi Eleazar asks “…that we dwell in love and brotherhood and peace and friendship…” Rabbi [Judah the Prince] asks for deliverance from evil. Rab’s meditation — now part of the new moon liturgy — asks for “long life…prosperity…wealth and honor” as well as “fear of wrongdoing… and reverence for heaven.” But it is the meditation above, attributed to Mar son of Rabina, which found its way into the siddur, from the 9th Century CE onward, at the conclusion of all three daily prayers.

This choice is in keeping with the importance Judaism places on careful speech.

Torah, Talmud, and Tongue

Numerous verses in the Torah focus on speech. The Torah prohibits taking God’s name in vain (Exod. 20:7); bearing false witness (Exod. 20:13); and “tale-bearing,” which is linked, tellingly, with “standing idly by the blood of one’s brother” (Lev. 19:15). We are told to keep words of Torah in our mouths and teach them to our children (Deut. 6:6-9, also recited in the daily prayers). When we are commanded not to “aggrieve” or “oppress” others for the second time in four verses (Lev. 25:14,17), with the former specifically prohibiting financial harm, the latter is understood as forbidding verbal harm.

Jewish tradition considers “evil speech” — i.e., statements, as well as hints/suggestions, which could be damaging (even if true) — equivalent in seriousness to the worst sins, including murder. In addition, listening to evil speech is considered as dangerous as issuing it: “Evil speech kills three: the one who speaks it, the one who listens to it, and him about whom it is told” (Arakhin 15b). Judaism also prohibits spreading suspicion, as does Islam. See, e.g., Maimonides’ 12th Century Mishneh Torah and the 19th Century Chofetz Chaim; Imam Birgivi’s 16th Century The Path of Muhammad: A Book on Islamic Morals and Ethics.

“Life and death are in the power of the tongue” (Arakhin 15b) is but one of many Talmudic texts stressing the importance of speech. The tongue is considered a dangerous weapon, more dangerous than the sword or hand. While a hand injures at a short distance, the tongue can also injure from afar. A sword generally strikes where aimed and can be drawn back even after it is lifted, but an arrow cannot be stopped once released and does not always strike where intended. (See, e.g., The Jewish Encyclopedia of Moral and Ethical Issues, compiled by Nachum Amsel. Jason Aronson, 1999.)

Which of you desires life,
loves long years discovering goodness?
Keep your tongue from evil, your lips from speaking lies
[n’tzor l’shoncha meira us’fatecha midabeir mirmah]
Shun evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it
— Psalm 34:13-15 (Siddur Sim Shalom translation)


* Mishkan T’filah is published by the Union of Reform Congregations. Siddur Sim Shalom and related commentary, Or Hadash, are published by the Rabbinical Assembly, United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. For complete citations and more details on all references, see Source Materials.

** Complete English translation of the Babylonian Talmud available for free download. For additional information, see Source Materials.


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Virginia hosts "Conversations Toward Repair" on We Act Radio, manages WeLuvBooks.org, blogs on general stuff a vspatz.net and more Jewish topics at songeveryday.org and Rereading4Liberation.com

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