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Thursday, 17 April 2014

Words Kill, Words Cure

As Rabbi Lord Sacks  published a powerful biblical commentary discussing the dangers of evil speech, the municipality of Karmiel posted advertisements all over town advising motorists not to text and drive.

WORDS.KILL.02The harsh message from them both was clear: “Words can kill”. Moreover, noted the former  British Chief Rabbi using a well-placed truism, the cost of free speech can be very expensive indeed.

But as he pointed out the following week, judicious praise may  heal. CHIEF.RABBI.04So I can’t overstate the feeling of generous goodwill engendered by the presence of several modern Orthodox rabbis, their families and members of their communities at the batmitzvah ceremony and celebration of the daughter of a former rabbi of the Masorti synagogue to which I belong in Karmiel.

They came knowing  the 12-year-old girl at the centre of attention would wear a prayer shawl and skull-cap, chant from a Torah scroll and lead most of the prayers.  Some days earlier, she had  donned tefillin (phylacteries) during morning prayers in Jerusalem with the Women of the Western Wall. “It’s been a lot of hard work”, said her justifiably proud mother. It was also one helluva leap for Jewish egalitarianism.

TefilinWoW.IWD.I was really pleased to witness it and have attempted to encapsulate my feelings thus:


‘Girl swathed in prayerPink.Tallit

Betrothed to Torah -

We rise, enchanted, singing’-


This is where I so often find attitudes in Israel markedly different from those in the U.K. – the only Diaspora community of which I have personal knowledge.  Such is the social and moral pressure exerted by Orthodox authorities in the U.K., a gathering like that I have described simply would never happen now.

This is the reason for the regular rows about Orthodox rabbis attending the pluralistic educational Limmud conferences  and why some years ago attempts to establish a Masorti congregation in Manchester were laughed out of court. The quite stupefying vilification of and derisive contempt held for non-Orthodox Judaism and its clergy  by their mainstream Orthodox counterparts is without end. I also know from deeply sad personal experience how the attitude infects young people and that the embitterment is being passed from one generation to the next.  The question most often asked now is not ‘who is a Jew?’ but ‘who is a real Jew?’

I suggest therefore, that a stern reappraisal of the concept of lashon hara - the  Hebrew term for evil speech - that Rabbi Sacks discussed so ably in his essay,  is needed most sorely and should be tackled soon.


Meanwhile back here in Israel, the affectionate cordiality I sensed in Karmiel on the Sabbath of the batmitzvah was present again the next day further south at the seaside town of Netanya where I attended a headstone unveiling for a late cousin-in-law.

Netanya.CemeteryAfter the South African-born rabbi had led prayers, there was a deeply sincere tribute to the deceased by his son. Then in stark contrast to my experience when my mother died and was buried in London, the rabbi stepped aside and allowed the widow to pay her own tribute. This included the recital of some favourite lines from the Scots poet, Robert Burns.

Here’s my own take on those moving few moments:

‘Sunlight glances on etched

Stone; four red roses fall -

He was truly a poet’

I know nothing about the officiating rabbi that day, so I’m unaware whether his generosity was instinctive or if he had had to accede to the family’s wishes following an incident at the resort during January 2011 when a woman sued the local burial authorities for NIS 32,000 – about £5,800 - because she had been forced to stand separately from the men during a funeral. I fervently wish I’d ever had the guts - and the spare cash - to do something similar!


Instead I conclude with another self-authored poem. This is a longer one about a devout man’s feelings at the end of a Jewish Sabbath:   Tefilin

‘When Sabbath Leaves

‘Sabbath lingers,

Sips the last spice-wine-scented,

Flame quenched drops,

Then slips silently away.

A flinch. A sigh.

Her accustomed treason

Never fails to pain.

But Her gift -

His extra soul – is nimbly shed.

He shrugs free,

Steps out to bless

The moon.

A new week is born’.

© Natalie Wood (17 April 2014)

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