By Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky and Liz Offenbach
Whether in prayer or conversation, the words we use are not taken lightly in Judaism, especially when they are harmful to others. Jewish law actually likens the act of embarrassing a person to murder. And the Talmud, the primary source book for Jewish law, teaches that gossiping is equivalent to the murder of three people.
As you sit around the Passover seder table this year, be conscious of the words you use to describe others. Consider their impact because all too often we forget that words have the power to marginalize and oppress members of our society.
This holiday, we invite you to make this pledge and bring it your seder table: "I promise to the best of my ability to eliminate from my vocabulary all words that are hurtful, insensitive and oppressive of others, and include only words that are welcoming, sensitive and liberating."
Language defines us. It shapes who we are. Language can build, but it also has the potential to destroy through the extension and perpetuation of negative stereotypes. We are not “kikes”; we are not “cheap Jews.” We bristle even at the mention of such words.
Similarly, those from other religious backgrounds who have chosen to cast their lot with the Jewish people through marriage are not “shaygetzes” or “shiksas,” “intermarrieds” or “goys.” They are women and men. They are Christians, Muslims, Buddhists and atheists. They do not “desecrate” nor are they “abominations.”
During Passover, Jews and their loved ones recount the story of the Exodus and recite, “Now we are slaves, next year may we be free.” This verse, from the “Ha Lachma Anya" (The Bread of Our Affliction) Passover table reading, is both symbolic and literal. During the seder we put ourselves in the place of the Israelite slaves, but we also remember those in other parts of the world who today live without freedom. We are fortunate to live in a democracy where we can say and think whatever we choose, so let’s use this upcoming holiday as an opportunity to choose words that will free people rather than enslave them.
When we choose to eliminate such language from our speech, we are able to welcome and include all those who wish to engage with Judaism in our Big Tent. Sometimes “negative language” is not obvious to all. What is negative to one person may appear to be positive to another. And some words have evolved to take on positive and empowering connotations when once they were negative and demeaning. For example, “queer” was once used as a derisive term to refer to gay individuals. Today it represents a term of empowerment.
This is something we are all learning. Even at the Jewish Outreach Institute, where we try to be inclusive of all, we recently received feedback about an article we had written that mistakenly compared those with mental and physical disabilities to those who are “well.” Did we mean to imply that people with disabilities are therefore “unwell” and somehow less robust and dynamic members of the community? Of course not. We erred and have since apologized. We continue to learn.
This Passover, we ask that you do your best to end the “enslavement” of others through language. We are well aware of the grave nature of physical slavery, and we are not making light of this serious issue by raising the concern of verbal oppression. But it’s clear through our work that using negative language makes some people feel like they are being relegated to a lower or outer edge of society.
Now is the time to stop defining those who are different from us by using negative words and stereotypes -- whether different means Jewish or another religious background, heterosexual or homosexual, American or any other ethnic group, disabled, male or female, single or married, old or young.
Inclusive language is the first step toward creating a truly inclusive -- and fully free from oppression -- Jewish community.
(Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky is the executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI.org) and the author of many books, including "Preparing Your Heart for Passover: A Guide for Spiritual Readiness." Liz Offenbach is the director of program at the institute.)
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