Every day I pray that I will have a sense that God is always in front of me, that He is always in the room. It helps me control my thoughts, my actions, and my speech. When things irritate me, I think long and hard as to whether I want to respond to a provocation or to an unkind word. In general, I do not regret being silent, but I do regret a hurtful word that I may have uttered to someone, even when my intentions were noble.
I was reminded of the power of words as I watched the gripping political thriller All the President’s Men, which portrays in detail the intense investigative newspaper work of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein as they painstakingly researched the Watergate burglary, eventually leading to the resignation of President Richard Nixon.
Woodward and Bernstein seem like two Talmud study partners who continually probe each other to ascertain the truth. Each questions the other and is unafraid of challenging or criticizing his friend. Their frank criticism of each other is not personal, but rather a sign that each one trusts the other to be honest and not to advance any personal agenda. Their shared mission, to discover what the Watergate burglary was all about, makes their egos subservient to the greater purpose of their work. It is this understanding of their common goal which is at the heart of their friendship and their search for truth.
They analyze and debate the significance of the words of everyone they interview. What do the words mean on a superficial level? What do the words imply? What does a response of silence indicate? There is a fascinating scene in which Carl Bernstein needs to confirm the truth of an article that is about to appear in the morning newspaper. No one wants to be quoted, so Bernstein comes up with the following proposal as he talks to his contact on the phone: “If what I say is true, then I will count to ten, and if you do not hang up, I will assume my article is true. If it is not true, then you hang up before I reach the number ten, and I will assume that what I wrote is false.” Here, interestingly, everything hangs on what is not being said.
Ben Bradlee, editor of The Washington Post, the paper that employs Woodward and Bernstein, is also extremely sensitive about words and continually reminds the ambitious reporters that he cannot agree to print something in his paper unless they get confirmation of more of their facts. The paper cannot besmirch someone’s reputation based upon hearsay evidence or theorizing about what might have happened.
In the world of Jewish jurisprudence, the laws of slander and the gravity of hurting someone with words is the topic of many volumes written by sages of the past and present. These laws are carefully codified because of the essential concern that, as the Psalmist writes, “Life and death are in the power of the tongue;” for one negative comment about a person might ruin his life professionally or personally. As a rabbi and school principal, I have been tested many times when people ask me for recommendations about people I know. It may be a recommendation for a job, for acceptance to an academic institution, or for a marriage partner. My general approach is to say what needs to be said without embellishment, for words are like arrows. Once uttered, they cannot be retrieved.
As we speak to the people around us, it is wise to weigh our words so that we do not hurt anyone inadvertently and in order to ensure that our words will always be in the service of society and sanctity.
By Rabbi Herbert J. Cohen, Ph.D.
Excerpted with permission from Kosher Movies by Herbert J. Cohen (Urim Publications, 2015).