When I was in my twenties, a friend told me I was really religious.
“Really?” I said. “I never go to the synagogue.”
“You are constantly talking about Jewish stuff. During Passover you are obsessed with Matzah.”
Maybe he was on to something. Thirty years later I’m off to Rabbinical school, and right now I’m obsessed with Hebrew. I’m taking an online class, and meeting with a tutor a few times a week on a separate track. I’m learning, but it is exhausting.
And, I’m noticing how often the English translation strays from the Hebrew. For example, in the Reform prayer book, it does not change the Hebrew in the prayers, but gives a translation removing gendered language and softening the role of the Divine. For example, instead of “His people Israel” it will say something like “the Jewish people.”
On the other side of the spectrum, Chabad translates Exodus 15:2 as God’s “strength and vengeance,” whereas most translations say “strength and might.” As context, this is in the Song of the Sea, an ancient poem presented in a special script within the Torah that recounts the drowning of the Egyptians in the Red Sea. Rabbi Janet Marder from Congregation Beth Am explained that the word “vengeance” incorporates an interpretation of this verse from the medieval commentator Rashi.
The words we choose have the power to change the world.
Hebrew has such a sacred place within the Jewish tradition that whomever translates it has tremendous power in how the words will be interpreted. The Hebrew word “Mussar” is translated as “rebuke” in much of the Orthodox word, instead of “guidance” or “discipline” which is much more in line with how we think of Mussar today. Just look at the difference it makes in the following Psalm 1:8
My son, heed the Mussar of your father, And do not forsake the instruction of your mother;
One translation shows an angry and disapproving father; the other two parents providing moral lessons, which is both easier for me to hear and more appropriate to the Mussar project as it stands today.
In a similar way, Jefferson’s word choices for the Declaration of Independence continue to have significant implications for our country. The phrase “all men are created equal” serves both as a beacon to highlight how far we are from living up to its promise, and the opportunity to reimagine it as “all men and women are created equal.”
Which brings us to a Mussar Silence practice we can all try during this time of division within our country
*****Here’s the Mussar Silence Practice*********
Speak respectfully about the other side, or at least do not call them names and make things worse.
Today, our country has political, social and class divisions that in my opinion threaten our future. The stakes are high, with intolerable situations like the immigrant detention camps. Yet if we cannot fight for change without name calling or demonizing our opponents, we will just exacerbate and deepen the spiritual sickness that is killing our nation.
As it says in the Mussar classic Pele Yoetz,“Silence at the time of anger is like water on a fire.” This does not mean to remain silent in the time of injustice. But when it comes to people who disagree with you, speak of the problem and try to get them to agree or disagree on whether it is a problem. Remain silent if you feel the urge to attack them.
Recently, I almost had to ban one of the most active people on the American Mussar Facebook page. While I agreed with their comments, they were name calling and being unnecessarily harsh, especially when the initial comment was nuanced and reasonable. They removed their comment after I asked them to, although they messaged me that I had shamed them publicly which is also not a proper way to use the power of speech.
This is not easy stuff!
Whether or not you can speak respectfully about people who vote differently from you, I know that we can all at least not dehumanize each other.
Want to understand why it is hard for you to stay silent? Take the Soul Trait Profile Quiz. No email address required.