Religious Life

Locker Room Talk

“Locker Room Talk”
13 Tishrei 5777 • Haazinu • October 15, 2016
Rabbi Alexander Davis

Shabbat Shalom,

“They are just words. I am not proud of them. Locker room talk. Just words. This is guy’s talk. Locker room banter.”

First of all, I just have to say that when I am in the locker room at the JCC (and I haven’t been for a while), I never hear anything like this. It’s usually, “did you hear about so and so that died,” or “did you see what happened in Israel,” or “what did you think of last night’s Federation board meeting.” Not nearly as steamy.

Let’s say for just a moment that that is true; they are just words. It’s just “locker room talk.” Let’s just say he didn’t do these things. What then? Maybe we should just say, “ok, no big deal. They’re just words, just words.”

Jewish tradition would have us answer differently.

“Barukh sheamar v’haya haolam,” we say every morning. “Blessed is the one who spoke and created the world.” God spoke the world into being. “And God said, let there be light, and there was light.” For Jews, there is no such thing as “just” words. Words are precious. Words are holy. Words are to be cherished. For words create worlds. On Yom Kippur, our confession must be verbal- “Ashamnu, bagdu, gazalnu”- in order to be forgiven. When a groom says “harei at m’kudeshet li,” a new world is created- a married couple. When a person says, “I am sorry. I forgive you. Let’s be friends again.” A new world is created between them.

Words can also destroy worlds. When a person says “I hate you,” a relationship is broken. When a husband says, “harei at muteret l’kol adam” before a beit din, he and his wife are officially divorced. Their marriage is over. When a public figure, a leader uses language that objectifies women, that insults women, and then passes it off as no big deal, that too creates a world. But not one in which I want to live. For, it is a world and a culture in which sexual harassment and violence against women are normalized. And a world of safety, security and holiness is threatened.

Words are never “just” words. Words are “d’varim things” that have substance. They have impact. That’s why we debate if they are “Occupied territories” or “Judea and Sameria.” It’s why UNESCO’s decision this week to only refer to the Temple Mount at Haram Al Shif and also not Har Habayit is so disturbing. It’s why we no longer use the N-word to speak of African Americans or the K word to speak of Jews. Words carry weight. Use the wrong ones or use them in the wrong way and there are sure to be consequences. That is the message of a passage in masaket Shabbat 33a.
We read in the Talmud a list of curses that will befall those who fail to follow God’s laws. To the one who delays justice, such and such will happen. To the one who swears false oaths, such and such will happen. Then, the Talmud turns its attention to one who speaks obscenities, n’veilut peh. This is not lashon hara, evil speech, gossip. This is treif talk. Neveila refers to an animal carcass not properly ritually slaughtered. Neveilut means “disgraceful” and can also refer to sexual organs. No, neveilut peh is obscenities, disgraceful language.

I’d like to share the passage at length:

“Because of the sin of speaking obscenities, troubles increase, and harsh decrees are renewed, Jewish youth die and the cry of orphans and widows is not answered. B’avon n’veilut peh tzarot rabot v’gezeirot mitchadshot, v’bachurei yisrael meitim, yetomom v’almanot tzoakim v’einan neenin.

“Rabbi Hanan bar Abba says, “everyone knows what a bride and groom do after the chuppa (they have intimate relations). But one who defiles his mouth by talking about it even if that person had been decreed to enjoy seventy happy years, their sentence is reversed to seventy years of evil. Kol haminabel piv afilu hotmin alav g’zar diin shel shevim shana l’tova, hofkhin alav l’ra’ah.

“Rabba bar Sheilah said in the name of Rabbi Chisda, “Anyone who used obscenities falls deeper into hell. Kol haminavel et piv, maamikin lo gehinom.”

“Rav Nachaman says the same is true for who is listens but is silent. Af shomea v’shotek.

This sugiya is a powerful condemnation of “locker room talk.”

According to the sages, the impact of obscenities is a “disaster, a huge disaster, the biggest disaster this world has ever seen.” For perversion of judgment, the Talmud say, the result is war, famine, poverty, exile. For the pervasion of the tongue, we go to hell, we forfeit our joy. A couple things are noteworthy in this passage.

The Talmud singles out young adults and says troubles will multiply for them from obscenities. Why? Perhaps they this was meant as a warning to those more likely to use this language. Or perhaps it was directed to adults whose language could poison the atmosphere for future generations.

The Talmud goes on to say that when obscenities are spoken, the cry of orphans and widows are not answered. Why? Because our ears have been defiled and desensitized so that we no longer hear their cry.

Finally, and most strikingly, the rabbis say the results of neveilut peh applies equally to speaking locker room banter and to hearing it and remaining silent. One who passes it off as “just words” without condemning it is equally guilty and condemned to misfortune.

About locker room talk, Jewish tradition is clear, gehenom, you’re going to hell. I would modify it slightly and say, you are making this world hell. But is there ever a time when obscenities are permitted? Our parasha is instructive.

“Haazinu hashamayim v’adabeira, tishma haaretz imrei fi Give hear, heavens and I will speak. Listen O earth to the words of my mouth” (Deut 32:1). Here, Moshe uses two different terms for speaking, l’dabeir and lomar. Daber, our rabbis say, signifies dibbur kasha, harsh, strong language. Amira, on the other hand, is lashon rakha, soft, gentle language. This verse contains contrasting verbs: Haazinu hashamayim v’adabeira, tishma haaretz imrei fi.” The Chasidic Rabbi of Bistritz explains why Moshe used both strong and soft language. He compared it, as the verse itself does, to rain. As is known, rain is not always a blessing for all plants. There are plants which require a heavy dose of rain and others which are harmed by too much water. Similarly, Rabbi Bistritz taught, there are people who respond best to gentle speech while others to require harsher treatment. Knowing his audience, Moshe used both in this final speech to the Israelites. He spoke to the diversity of his audience.

But listen to his conclusion of this interpretation: v’hakol hu l’tovato shel kol echad l’fi hadarush lo. The language Moshe chose was for each person’s benefit as they needed. It was l’tovato.

There are times when we need to speak harshly, strongly to make a point. And there may be times when colorful language ok. For it can be expressive and funny. But it has to be l’tovato. It has to be of benefit. It has to be for good. Truly foul speech, on the other hand, pollutes our world as Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov said, “person who uses rough language is like a pipe spewing smoke in a beautiful room” (Derekh Eretz Rabba 3:3). And in that way, it destroys our world.

Chaverim, it is not enough to say, “there is a time to speak and a time to be silent.” We have to consider how we speak and the consequences of remaining silent. And that is true not just for the locker room but for our living room, for our office corridors and our social hall.

With the High Holy Days behind us, we are reminded that the words we speak about and to others should be as holy as the words we speak about and to God. For then our words will indeed help us build a better world.