We all know that words can hurt and words can heal. This happens when our words are directed at others. But what about other contexts? The words we use may help us articulate our thoughts more or less clearly, or reflect our backgrounds or education. Words, however, do not just express; they create.
Parshat Matot-Massei opens with mitzvot connected to the uttering of vows. For the rabbis, a vow refers specifically to making something–say, a loaf of bread–forbidden to oneself. When such a vow is made to God, it creates a metaphysical reality: It turns the bread into a sanctified object. And that reality may not be violated: “If a man makes a vow to the LORD…he shall not break his word; he shall do all that has emerged from his lips” (Numbers 30:3). A vow is sacred, and the Torah commands us that, as such, it may not be broken.
Sfat Emet, in a piercing insight, takes this one step further. It is not only vows that bind us, not only vows that create certain realities. It is all speech, even–or rather, especially–the speech that we use every day. Speech doesn’t just reflect our perception of the world; it creates the world in which we live. “He shall do all that has emerged from his lips” is not a command or an exhortation; it is a simple fact. Our words shape the world we inhabit, and that world shapes our actions and our decisions.
Consider three people: A person who regularly says “Barukh HaShem” and “Im yirtzeh HaShem,” one who says “Thank God,” and one who never mentions God altogether. We tend to think that these differences reflect different worldviews. Which is true enough. At the same time, though, these three are also, through their words, creating three different worlds for themselves.
In a way, Sfat Emet’s point is one that was made a long time ago by the author of Sefer HaChinukh. This thinker–we do not know his name–wrote that the purpose of mitzvot is to shape our character. “Our hearts are drawn after our actions.” (This is a much more poetic version of the expression “Fake it till you make it”). Sfat Emet’s insight is that this applies to how we speak, not just how we act, and it does so in an even more powerful way. Words do not just shape our character; they shape our world.
The power of words as world-shapers can already be seen in the opening chapters of the Torah. Adam’s first act is the act of speech. God brings before Adam every animal for him to name. Our Rabbis tell us that Adam was able to identify their essence and hence knew their names. Sfat Emet would have us say the opposite. By choosing their names, Adam was completing a creative act, no less than what God had done in God’s creation of the world. Adam’s creation was not a physical one–that had already been done. It was a world-shaping one. He was creating the conceptual map that organized and defined his world.
Over the past month YCT has been running a kollel of top-notch scholars to develop future halakhic voices for our community. They have been working on writing responsa on a wide range of topics related to the topic of people with disabilities. Significantly, we made the decision that before jumping into text study, researching and writing, we needed to devote a serious number of hours to talk about language. Do we use “person-first” language–“a woman who is blind,” for instance, or do we use defining labels, like “a deaf woman”? Are we “for inclusion” or are we against rejecting people from membership in the community? Do we use the language of “disabilities” (one chosen by the disabilities community itself) or “special needs” (and are people’s needs special, or is it the accommodations which are special)? Are people on the Autism spectrum or are they Autistic? Do people with Autism have a malady which we should try to cure, or are they neurodiverse people in a world dominated by the neurotypical? Are people disabled, or is it society which makes them so? Do we speak about people “suffering” from a disability, or do we speak about people who have a disability?
These questions cannot be brushed aside with the claim that this is a PC mentality gone overboard. Every one of the decisions we make can be hugely consequential. The way we talk about these things can delegitimize and hurt, or they can validate and heal. And every choice we make shapes our world, defines for us who is seen as “inside” and who is seen as “outside” a community. Speech determines who is seen as an equal and who is seen as lesser, where the “problem” resides, and where it does not.
We came to the topic of disabilities with a deep awareness that any serious halakhic engagement in a topic such as this one must take place in tandem with discussions with people with disabilities, with medical ethicists, and with pastoral experts. And throughout it all, language has been a recurring theme. The worldview shaped by certain language choices pushed us and forced us to grapple with new questions. One in particular stood out for me. “The halakhic mechanism you are recommending is that of mitztaer – that we make exceptions for a person who is in anguish or suffering,” said one woman, mother of a daughter who is blind and who had just presented moments before. “But my daughter is not suffering, and she is not a nebach who needs your sympathy. The halakhic choice to use that mechanism comes with the cost of creating a world in which people with disabilities are defined as people who are sufferers. That is not a world that I wish to live in.”
Sfat Emet was right. Our words create worlds. And these worlds shape our actions. It is our responsibility to choose, individually and collectively, our words and our discourse. This starts with giving serious thought as to what is that reality we want to strive to create and then to do what we can, in action and in speech, to make this world a reality.