Words are powerful in our Jewish tradition. The Torah begins with God creating the universe through words: “God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light” (Genesis 1:3). The 15th century German text The Ways of the Righteous explains “with the tongue, one can perform limitless acts of virtue…[and] can commit numerous great and mighty transgressions.”
The way we communicate with one another has changed drastically over my not-so-long lifetime. I started to email in high school to communicate with camp friends; I shared a Pine account with my mom. I rented my first cell phone during my junior year abroad in Israel and immediately started texting.
The preeminent Jewish writer on the ethics of speech and language, the Chofetz Chaim, experienced similar innovation in communication during his lifetime. He was born in 1839 just after the invention of the electric telegraph and lived to experience telephones and radio before he died in 1933. He famously reflected: “When people are preparing a telegram, notice how carefully they consider each word before they put it down. That is how careful we must be when we speak.” Perhaps it was adapting to new technology that inspired his dedication to the subject of communication. Scholars also suggest that he was responding to fierce tension and lack of civil discourse within his Jewish community of Lithuania.
The current political climate and pandemic have taken a toll on healthy communication. Division and lack of civility not only play out in the public arena but also on our social media accounts and family Zoom gatherings. I have to admit that over the past months my temperament has been cranky at times and my language has been terse and even salty.
Our Temple President, Melanie Field, has prioritized fostering a culture of kindness in our community. We agree that in order for us to infuse our synagogue with kindness we first must look at how we communicate. For the past two months I have worked with Temple leaders Melanie Field, Vicky Romero, Bob Goodmark, and Sonia Siegel Vexler on Beth Or Communication Norms. We hope these norms will be a tool and a resource for all Beth Or meetings and discussions, from board meetings to book club. Our Small Group Initiative and Governing Board have already begun to adopt these norms and Melanie Field will introduce them to committee chairs in February. Our tradition holds that words have the power to create and it is our blessing that these norms will build and support Temple Beth Or as a k’hilah kedoshah, sacred community.
Rabbi Rachel Kort
Temple Beth Or Communication Norms
B’tselem Elohim ∙ בצלם אלהִים ∙ Each of us is created in God’s image
Listen to understand/not to respond.
Express disagreement with ideas, not individuals.
Maintain confidentiality about the conversation and who said what, unless given permission to share.
Tzimtzum ∙ צמצום ∙ -The art of contraction and expansion
Step Up/Step back – make room for others to speak. Consider challenging yourself to participate.
Our Definition of “Jewish” Time
Start and end meetings on time.
Respond to emails or phone calls within three days (unless otherwise requested). When this time frame isn’t doable simply acknowledge that communication was received and share when you will be able to respond.