The Virtue of Silence

Rabbi Reuven Mann

Judaism teaches that one ought to be moderate and careful in one’s speech; and seek to reduce the quantity of words that stream from his mouth. According to the Rambam in Hilchot Deiot 2:4,

“A person should increase silence and refrain from speaking, except in matters of wisdom and practical necessities… The Rabbis said ‘ whoever engages in excessive speech brings on sin. And they further said, ‘I have not found anything as good for one’s body as silence.”

The contemporary culture is clearly at odds with this philosophy. It extols the external visible personality features, such as charm and smooth-speech. In fact, a recent President with little in the way of solid achievement to recommend him, came to national prominence on the basis of his exceptional oratorical talent.

The superficial culture of the times has brought about the phenomenon, of people in the entertainment industry uttering “sage” insights on serious matters which are beyond their realm of expertise. In fact, it is interesting to note how many entertainers–including athletes–have taken to growing beards. Why would they seek to adopt a “look” which is more appropriate to “Charedi” Jews?

In my opinion, it is because they are not satisfied to be applauded for their performance skills. They want people to believe, that they have more to offer than mere entertainment. Indeed, they fancy themselves as very profound people, whose insights on all matters should be considered.

Look at the Academy Awards which no one watches anymore; because, among other things, one must put up with pompous actresses and bearded actors pontificating on all types of political matters, on which they have really nothing to offer. Silence would serve them well. They would be well advised, in the words of Laura Ingraham, to just “shut up and sing.”

Recently, Whoopi Goldberg (who chose a Jewish sounding name to bolster her career–how’s that for cultural appropriation?) landed herself in hot water, for some reckless speech. I have often said, that man’s tongue is his own worst enemy.

Whoopi hurt herself, by denying that the Holocaust was a racial phenomenon, but was rather “merely” a manifestation of “man’s inhumanity to man.” No question it was man’s inhumanity, but isn’t that kind of putting it mildly?

“Brutality” is a better term in that context, and “bestiality” is closer to the truth. But you get the point; anyone remotely familiar with the gruesome facts of the Shoah, will find it very difficult to crystallize what happened, with any particular word. There are simply, no words. As Elie Wiesel explained, we need a new language to adequately talk about it.

Whoopi’s utterance, was greeted with instant (righteous and self-righteous) indignation. Who could pass on the opportunity to jump on the bandwagon of safe (politically correct) condemnation? But, she was clearly asking for it. Her statement, displayed an astonishing ignorance of even the most rudimentary facts regarding: Hitler, Nazism and the Holocaust.

The entire program of destruction, was based on the Feuhrer’s assertion that Aryans constituted a superior race; and that in order to retain the “purity” of their blood and culture, they had to ruthlessly eradicate all inferior races–chief among them the Jews. Whoopi, all you had to do was ask.

There is, however, no need to revel in her embarrassment. I don’t think she meant any harm, but her ignorance brought her down. This frequently happens, and could easily happen to any one of us. She is not the only one to give voice to stupid things. We all do, but because we are unknowns we can avoid that kind of fallout.

Jason Greenblatt of the ADL, offered the official reprimand; and she immediately had him on her show and issued a mea culpa. Let’s give her credit for that. She had the integrity to acknowledge her mistake and make amends with her apology–which I take to be sincere. All’s well that ends well. We’ll see…

What lesson can be learned from this unforced blunder? Is there a takeaway, that could could be helpful to us in our own lives? I believe, this should cause us to have renewed appreciation for the teaching of our Sages, on the matter of excessive speech.

We should guard our words as we do our money, and exercise restraint and caution in this area. Let us train ourselves, to increase our thought-to-verbalization ratio; we can thereby, save ourselves from a great deal of unnecessary embarrassment. If we educate ourselves to speak only after we have given the matter a great deal of thought and consideration, we will become wiser and more effective people.

The Torah, records the full text of the discussion between Eliezer and Rivka’s family, because, “even the plain talk of the servants of the Patriarchs is beloved to Hashem.” May we merit to reach the level, where our ordinary conversations are worthy of being listened to and learned from.

Shabbat Shalom.