Rabbinic Reflections: Violence and holiness

"‘Should,' ‘have to,' and ‘must' are among the most violent words in the English language because they are extrinsic."

Think about that quotation for a minute. If I say to you, "you should…," or "you have to…," or "you must," you are likely to feel a tightening in your body, maybe even to become defensive.

The response is natural as someone, other than you is commanding you to do something. Even if you are the one speaking, saying "I should…," "I have to…," or "I must…," you are likely to say so with reluctance or maybe even dread. Guilt or some sense of external pressure is making you say it.

How much better would we feel if we were invited to do something, offered the opportunity, or dare I say, gifted a chance to do something? We might still be responding to someone, but we would be acting out of our own desire or will. We would have intrinsic motivation.

I transcribed that opening quotation at the recent Prizmah conference for Heads of School for Small Jewish Day Schools during a session on Courageous & Caring Communication led by Jared Finkelstein. I am still pondering what it means to me. In my school, Albert Einstein Academy, the faculty and I talk a great deal about our language, "the power of words" (after a book of that title), and how to help students do things for themselves as independent learners. In a K-5 elementary school, it is never simple. The quotation, though, is a stark reminder of the importance of speaking mindfully.

As a rabbi, I am also struck by how much this teaching sounds contrary to biblical speech. The Ten Utterances (also known as the Ten Commandments) are full of "thou shalt" and "thou shalt not" language. Really, only the first utterance lacks the "violence" of the rest of the Decalogue: "I the LORD am your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage" (Exodus 20:2). The degree to which the decalogue matches ancient near eastern suzerainty treaties compounds the feeling that these behavioral guidelines are external commands, hence the Ten Commandments.

Right after the Book of Exodus, though, comes the Book of Leviticus, which Jews start reading now. Leviticus is full of rules; it's a record of priestly procedures and policies for holiness. For many readers, it is the least motivating read of the entire Bible. For some readers, verses in Leviticus are so troubling as to be a scourge. Nevertheless, Leviticus is the center of the Torah, the first five books of the Bible.

Invited to pay careful attention to violence in my words, I find myself re-reading a key passage in Leviticus: kidohsheem teeheeyoo (usually translated "You shall be holy"). Now, I read it equally in keeping with Hebrew grammar: "You will be holy, for holy am I the LORD your God" (Leviticus 19:2). Taking seriously that the Divine breath is in me, my being holy is a reflection of who I am, intrinsically. Far from an extrinsic command, my being holy is about my relationship to God, my recognition of God's gift within me, my unique soul.

Much as the decalogue shifts from a relational statement into commands, yes, Leviticus is a document of violent "you should" and "you should not" directives. The idea of the relationship, though, opens a new door; it invites us to see others as equally valuable unique souls. The next time you want to advise or direct someone, what would happen if you related what you wanted as a question: "what if you did…?"? I just asked you, and I hope we both avoid saying "you should…," "you have to…," and "you must…" If we do, we both might be that much more holy.

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About Rabbi Jeremy Winaker

Rabbi Jeremy Winaker is the head of school at the Albert Einstein Academy in Wilmington. Prior to that he was the senior Jewish educator at the Kristol Hillel Center at the University of Delaware for four years and he served as the rabbi for Bet Torah in Mt. Kisco, N.Y. and Adas Israel in Washington, D.C. He’s also one of several rabbis taking part in a radio show, The Rabbi Speaks, on WDEL. Rabbi Winaker lives in Delaware with his wife and three children.

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