It’s good to talk – perhaps even holy too

June 25, 2011
The Bright Sun Blue Sky Clouds
Published in The Times, 25th June 2011

It’s good, they used to say in the advertisement, to talk. According to Judaism it’s more than good: it’s essential. Without speech there is no relationship, and without relationship there is no peace. We see this in three biblical passages.

The first is a line in the Bible that is never correctly translated. It occurs in the story of Cain and Abel. Cain resents the fact that Abel’s offering is accepted while his is not. God senses his rising anger and warns him to control it, but Cain isn’t listening. Then comes the fateful sentence.

Literally translated it says, “Cain said to his brother Abel, and while they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him.” This does not make sense. It is not syntactically well-formed. It says, “Cain said,” but it doesn’t tell us what he said. So most Christian translations follow the Samaritan, Septuagint, Vulgate and Syriac versions that add a phrase telling us that Cain said, “Let’s go into the field.”

But the original Hebrew says what it does for a reason. It says, “Cain said to his brother Abel,” and then lapses into silence before telling us that Cain attacked his brother. The fractured syntax conveys more powerfully than any well-formed sentence could, that conversation between the brothers broke down. They stopped speaking. Words failed. Cain was too angry to verbalise his feelings. The next phrase tells us the result. When words fail, violence begins.

The second passage occurs near the beginning of the story of Joseph and his brothers. The brothers resent Joseph. He is their father's favourite, and it hurts. The relevant phrase is usually translated as, “they hated him and couldn't speak peaceably to him”.  In fact, though, the Hebrew original uses an unusual construction. Literally it says, “they could not speak him to peace.”

What this means, says Rabbi Jonathan Eybeshutz (18th century, Prague), is that had the brothers spoken, they could have told Joseph of their resentments. Joseph would have been aware of their feelings and might have moderated his behaviour in some way. Once real communication took place, the brothers might have spoken their way to peace. As it was, the brothers’ inability to speak allowed hatred to fester until they plotted to kill him, eventually deciding to sell him as a slave, fracturing the family and causing their father inconsolable grief. Again, a failure of words begat tragedy.

The third, a classic example of silence leading to violence, is the story of King David’s son Absalom. In a shocking act, Amnon, David’s son from another marriage, rapes Absalom’s sister Tamar. Tamar tells her brother the story. We then read, “Absalom never said a word to Amnon, either good or bad; he hated Amnon because he had disgraced his sister Tamar.” Two years later he takes a terrible revenge. Yet again, where words failed, violence followed.

Judaism is a religion of language, a sustained meditation on the power of words to build or destroy, heal or harm. In words, God created the universe. In words, he reveals himself to us. The first thing he gave Adam was the gift of naming the animals, using words to categorise and thus begin to understand the world around us. In Jewish tradition Homo sapiens is described as “the speaking being.”

Jewish law sees “evil speech” as akin to murder. There is a trace of this in the English phrase “character assassination.” Words can wound, injure, afflict. They can also lead to understanding and reconciliation. Honest, open conversation is the best way, sometimes the only way, to resolve conflict.

The great irony of the twenty-first century is that , having created technologies of instant global communication, we find ourselves talking less and less with those with whom we disagree.

The Internet allows us to choose the news we hear and the voices to which we listen.  What were once mixed communities that read the same papers and watched the same television news have become massive sects of the like-minded. At every stage our prejudices are reinforced and our views become more extreme.

There is a danger that a generation is emerging unable to giving a respectful hearing to the other side. When that happens, warns the Bible, violence is waiting in the wings.

There is a lovely rabbinic phrase: Conversation is a form of prayer. Openness to the Divine Other helps us be open to the human other.

It’s good to talk – perhaps even holy too.