November, right between the High Holidays and Chanukah, is usually not the most Jewishly active month of the year, but 2019 will be different, at least in Colorado.
The first of November is when The Jewish Experience, the Denver-based educational outreach organization, and some 60 partnering organizations, will launch the month-long Clean Speech Colorado, a multiform and multimedia program with a very specific objective — to keep us from badmouthing each other.
More specifically, while discouraging hurtful or harmful speech, to encourage Colorado Jews to respect each other’s differences, to find common ground, to interact with civility instead of hostility, to seek the positive instead of the negative.
Clean Speech is the brainchild of TJE managing director Rabbi Raphael Leban and his wife Ita, whom he describes as “a passionate and avid student of clean speech.”
The opposite of clean speech, in Hebrew, is lashon hara, a familiar phrase that might be translated into English as evil speech, or “bad tongue,” the rabbi says.
“In English, bad language might mean profanity and although profanity, coarse or vulgar language, is certainly something that the Talmud speaks against very strongly, that’s not the focus of Clean Speech Colorado. It is about avoiding lashon hara — hurtful and harmful speech.”
Hurtful speech is something that could hurt a person’s feelings through denigration or defamation. It would likely embarrass, humiliate or shame that person, and make them unhappy.
Harmful speech could damage a person’s personal or professional reputation, harm his or her family relationships or friendships or otherwise cause what Rabbi Leban calls “negative consequences.”
Both forms of speech constitute lashon hara, he says, and Clean Speech Colorado aims to drive them both into extinction, or at least diminish their use, the rabbi says.
“Our tradition has always considered this to be at the absolute root of challenges to our community peace, to our unity and to be one of the major shortcomings of the Jewish people,” Rabbi Leban says.
“It’s hard to over-emphasize it. Jewish life is classically defined by the Torah as a unified Jewish people, living in Israel with the central edifice of our tradition, the Temple in Jerusalem. If we’re familiar with that, it’s safe to say that the absence of peace in the Jewish people would cost us all that and that the real root of that absence of peace is lashon hara.”
The goal of Clean Speech Colorado is to reach as many Colorado Jewish households as possible via an already wide and varied range of participating institutions and their constituents.
On one level, the program offers a 30-day learning curriculum based on short lessons of five minutes a day. The program can be accessed through printed materials or online versions and videos on its website at cleanspeechcolorado.org.
On another level, there will be a number of what Rabbi Leban calls “headline events” — five or six of them through November — with well-known, out-of-town guests, such as noted speaker and author Joseph Telushkin, and siblings Colorado Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet and Rabbi Yehiel Kalish, an Illinois state legislator
In addition, participating institutions will offer their own public events. The public high school outreach group, the Jewish Student Connection, will focus a number of conversations among its members on clean speech ideals.
Shalom Park will conduct staff training on workplace gossip.
The JCC will devote a monthly meeting on avoiding lashon hara.
“We’re ramping up to prepare for November and to invite as many of those who would like to participate to sign up now to receive material,” Rabbi Leban says. “When November starts they should just go to cleanspeechcolorado.org where they can sign up and see more information.”
All of the events and materials are free of charge, he adds.
“The money has been raised by generous foundations and individuals in the community who believe in the cause.”
Even before the program gets active, Rabbi Leban says, the community’s response has been amazing. More than three dozen organizations, including Congregation Zera Abraham, Aish Denver, Temple Sinai, Temple Micah, Jewish National Fund, the Anti-Defamation League and JEWISHcolorado have signed on as participants.
Observers of the Colorado Jewish community will readily note that such wide consensus has hardly ever taken place here.
“We’ve gotten a very broad list of participating Jewish institutions, agencies, synagogues, community centers, organizations of all kinds,” says Rabbi Leban, noting that while they might disagree on a host of religious, social and political issues, they all agree on the negative consequences of lashon hara.
“There’s no organization that we have spoken to that has not immediately realized that this is a need. Every organization I spoke to, without fail, said they would help this cause.
“They are all participating in one beautiful idea. What a beautiful and exemplary community we are. We really have the potential to be role models in this endeavor.”
Community leaders lending their support Clean Speech Colorado agree that the program is needed, especially now, in an era in which bitter recrimination and malicious speech seem to have become commonplace.
“We are living in challenging times,” Scott Levin, regional director of the ADL, told the IJN last week.
“People have always had their differences, but it seems as if we have forgotten how to respectfully voice our disagreements with one another. I believe Clean Speech Colorado will bring important lessons to our community and help us to be more intentional in how we speak with and about one another.”
Levin says the increasingly harsh tone of public dialogue probably has its source in today’s troubled political climate, although he avoids taking a partisan stance.
“Politics seems to have divided our community, as it has the entire country, in ways where people have not been able to speak civilly with or about one another,” he says.
“It has been appalling to hear the language people have used in describing those that have different political views and support different political leaders, let alone have different views for solutions related to everything from Israel to immigration.”
His hope is that Clean Speech Colorado “will help people to recognize that our differences will make us stronger and that if we can be more intentional in the way we speak to and about one another, true progress can be made on many issues that face our community and country.”
Echoing those thoughts, and elaborating on them, is Rabbi Ahron Wasserman, president-CEO of Yeshiva Toras Chaim and executive director of TJE, Clean Speech Colorado’s parent organization.
He told the IJN that he is encouraged by the unprecedented scope of communal participation Clean Speech Colorado has inspired and feels that such wide consensus is the best means of resisting the harmful effects of hurtful speech.
“Speech can divide us and create divisiveness in our community,” Rabbi Wasserman says. “This program is designed not only to unite us as a community toward a common good, but also to address the very action that is often the root of our discord.
“Unfortunately, we live in a time where negative thinking is pervasive. Whether in the political arena or through the anonymity of social media, there is little mindfulness with regard to appropriate speech. This program aims to create an awareness of our common Jewish value of using the power of speech to build and create bonds rather than to tear down and fracture relationships.”
While hurtful speech has always been a component of human behavior, Rabbi Wasserman is convinced that the speed and anonymous nature of social media have caused social norms to change in recent years.
“The advance of technology and differing styles of communications,” he says, “lends to less dignified speech.”
Less dignified — a gentlemanly way to phrase it — might also be understood as tragic, in Rabbi Leban’s view.
“Unfortunately today, possibly because of recent politics in America,” he says, “there is a very clear sense that the Jewish people are split up one from another, and that division within us is bitter. That’s what makes this whole campaign so timely.
“It’s never been a bad time to raise community awareness on this topic, but right now I really don’t want to hear another story of a family broken apart — two family members not speaking to one another because of the bitter tone of vitriol between them over politics. I hear story after story like that, whether it’s over Israel, over religious differences, over American political differences and the way that they impact the Jewish community.”
The issues that divide American Jews — and Americans overall — are important, the rabbi says, and don’t lend themselves to simple solutions.
“We’re rubbing against very serious and significant issues. People are passionate and there’s a lot at stake. We feel justified by the strength of our convictions and beliefs and opinions and when that’s the case, sometimes we’re mistakenly led to believe that the strength of our arguments will be embellished with denigration of the opposing point of view and those who espouse it.”
Not only does that not help reach consensus or lead to solutions, ironically it achieves the opposite, and often ends up hurting someone in the process, the rabbi says.
“This is an education and awareness campaign, and without a person being careful, educated and aware of the pitfalls of speech which is hurtful and harmful, it’s all too easy to naturally fall into speech patterns which are inappropriate, insulting, reckless, disrespectful and offensive.”
Nobody, Rabbi Leban adds, wants to admit that he or she has been wrong, which is another dynamic Clean Speech Colorado plans to examine.
“Ego is a very big part of the curriculum,” he says. “Is a person willing to address the natural challenge of human ego?”
Another lesson Clean Speech Colorado plans to teach is that positive speech can be good for you.
Avoiding lashon hara might be seen as piety, as obeying a religious command, but it can also be understood as taking better care of oneself.
“It is a ticket for each and every one of us to a beautiful, happy, peaceful life with positive interactions with one another.”
The benefits of unloading anger, stress and hostility, Rabbi Leban says, can be readily seen in one’s physical, social and emotional health.
“It’s tragic to live in a world where we find fault with everyone around us, we criticize and draw attention to their faults by sharing negative things about them. It’s better for each and every one of us — more pleasant, more peaceful, more loving, much more desirable a life — if we focus on one another’s positive points, if we avoid speaking negatively of one another, if we transform our world into one of enlightened self-interest.”
Clean Speech Colorado’s supporters are optimists at heart. They are convinced the program can work.
Says Rabbi Wasserman: “Absolutely. A program like Clean Speech for Colorado will serve to enhance the cohesiveness and good will among its members.”
Says Levin: “I do believe that if people incorporate the lessons of Clean Speech Colorado in their personal lives, the purposeful way in which they interact with each other will make a difference.”
Says Rabbi Leban: “We are certainly optimistic to believe in the strength and potential of the Jewish people and of humankind to elevate ourselves, to better our world and to achieve the greatness that we believe ourselves to have been created for.
“But we are realists as well. We know that it takes effort and work and it’s challenging. We’re not foolish about it but we know that with effort, work and a strategic process we can achieve it.”
They also think that the idea is not, nor should it be, exclusive to the Jews of Colorado.
Rabbi Leban: “We hope our Colorado community will be a role model for others; that what we develop here can be passed along with our help to other Jewish communities and travel far and wide.”
Even, he adds, outside the varied realms of the Jewish community. “I certainly believe that our Torah and Jewish values are principles for all of humanity, so if we can be that light unto the nations in this way, nothing would please me more.”
Chris Leppek may be reached at IJNEWS@aol.com.
Copyright © 2019 by the Intermountain Jewish News