Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, the highly respected scholar and bestselling author of 18 books, including A Code of Jewish Ethics, Jewish Literacy, and The Nine Questions People Ask About Judaism, co-authored with Dennis Prager, will lead a weekend of learning as Tidewater Together’s Milton “Mickey” Kramer, scholar in residence. The weekend is also presented by United Jewish Federation of Tidewater, Tidewater Synagogue Leadership Council, and the Board of Rabbis and Cantors of Hampton Roads, and as part of the Simon Family JCC’s Lee and Bernard Jaffe Family Jewish Book Festival, in partnership with the Jewish Book Council.
Focusing on Rabbi Telushkin’s newly revised edition of Words That Hurt, Words That Heal—a guide on how choosing the right words can enrich relationships and offer insight to improve every facet of our lives—the weekend is open to the entire community, inclusive of all ages, genders, religious affiliations, and degrees of observance.
Telushkin is a senior associate of CLAL, the National Center for Learning and Leadership, serves on the board of the Jewish Book Council and is rabbi of the Los Angeles-based Synagogue for Performing Arts.
Ahead of his visit to Tidewater in a recent phone interview, Rabbi Telushkin shared details of his newly revised edition of Words That Hurt, Words That Heal and what he’ll focus on during his visit. Bringing this classic book into present day, Rabbi Telushkin notes that when it was originally written, social media was not even a concept, the internet was in its infancy, and so the spread of information—accurate or not—was not a particle of what it is today.
Five questions for Rabbi Joseph Telushkin
Two of your past books are The Book of Jewish Values and Words That Hurt, Words That Heal. In these bitterly divisive times, what bedrock values unite the Jewish people?
This is a subject I am very concerned about, namely civil discourse. Children are taught a phrase, which I think is very foolish, namely that sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me. The truth is that throughout history, words have motivated people to pick up sticks and stones. From Jewish history we learn that one of the causes of the destruction of the Second Temple was baseless hatred. In today’s divided society, Jews are caught in the middle. When you go to the far right or to the far left, it results not in a discussion of what we agree on, but what divides us. We need to start meeting in the middle.
How can we resolve this problem?
What I am trying to do is encourage civil discourse no matter what issues we are discussing and find ways not of sharpening our differences, which can lead to hatefulness, but to identify those issues on which we agree, to move toward the middle to find common ground and a way forward. I believe that on virtually any issue it is unlikely that 100 percent of one side is correct and that zero percent is correct on the other. There almost always are some issues we can agree on other than that the other side is wrong.
Has this approach actually worked in Jewish history?
After the destruction by the Romans of the Second Temple, there were those who gave in to despair. Rabbi Johanan ben Zakkai actually surrendered to the Romans and got permission from them to start his yeshiva at Yavneh. There were other factions who attacked him for caving in to the Romans. He was able to get agreement from them through respectful discourse. With the passage of time we can see and appreciate [his] wisdom.
Any other examples of words serving to heal after an initial breach?
Yes, when the founder of the Hasidic movement, the Baal Shem Tov started his teaching, he was denounced by the Vilna Gaon, one of the most respected and esteemed Jewish scholars of all time. Over time, the two movements reconciled to the extent that they are no longer at odds with one another, but respectful of their different understandings and approaches.
How has the power of words that heal played out in modern Israel?
David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s founding prime minister was bitterly opposed to Menachem Begin, leader of the Revisionist opposition. The two men had entirely different visions for the new Jewish State. Eventually they came to reconcile and Begin went on to become the Israeli Prime Minister, who signed the peace treaty with Egypt. And so, Jewish history is replete with examples of how we can use words not to advance hatred, but to promote healing.
Reprinted with permission from the
St Louis Jewish Light.
Robert A. Cohn,
Editor-in-Chief Emeritus, St. Louis Jewish Light