It’s been about a year since I first submitted an article – which turned out to be two, because yes, I tend to write at great length – to OU Life. It wasn’t the first time I published online, but did precipitate a particularly prolific period of public ponderings. (I don’t always alliterate, but when I do….)
In the context of this anniversary of sorts, I was especially struck by the next mishna coming up in my Pirkei Avot class:
Avtalyon says, “Sages, be careful with your words, lest you become obligated in an obligation of exile and are exiled to the place of evil waters, and the students who follow after you will drink and will die, and thus the name of Heaven is profaned.” (Avot 1:11)
Despite the audacity implicit in behaving as if I know anything worth writing or teaching about, I would not go so far as to include myself in Avtalyon’s audience of “sages.” But Pirkei Avot is full of words of wisdom which are ostensibly directed at judges or other community leaders, yet carry weight for the rest of us as well – and especially in the age of the internet, when anyone can easily foist random thoughts and opinions on the world, we would all do well to take Avtalyon’s words to heart.
Anyone with the audacity to behave as if we know anything worth saying (read: everyone who ever talks), would do well to take these words to heart.
It’s such a simple message, right? Just “be careful with your words.” Seems obvious. (Note that, in a valiant effort to reduce my typical word count, I am resisting exploration of the particular concerns Avtalyon expresses.)
Obvious, maybe – but no, not simple.
The very first piece I ever published online, titled “I am Orthodox, and Orthodox is Me,” was basically a kind of snarky attempt to highlight the fact that bashing “orthos” often amounts to saying things about me, a real person – and about many other real people – which are patently false. Of course, reactions were mixed, and of course, I took many positive and negative comments to heart.
One that stuck was: “Sarah, you write to the wrong people! Instead of expressing your anger at the people who have complaints about orthodoxy you should talk to the orthodox ones who give orthodoxy a bad name! Would they not be the real and correct target?”
I was confident that I was right to represent the perspective I did, and thought it was obvious that writing that piece didn’t mean I supported people doing awful things that give Orthodoxy a bad name.
Except – apparently it wasn’t obvious to that commenter, who indicated there was only one “correct” way to write about Orthodox people and that I was doing it “wrong.”
Why did that comment lodge itself in my memory? Because to this day, a part of me worries that that guy, and maybe others like him, misunderstood my post.
People like to say one shouldn’t care what others think – but if I didn’t care, I wouldn’t write. I write because I think I have a worthwhile contribution to offer the world of ideas. Of course I care what people think! If my audience misunderstands me, I haven’t achieved my objective, and maybe in some cases, I could even end up achieving the opposite of my intent.
“Lest you become obligated in an obligation of exile… and thus the Name of Heaven is profaned.”
Whatever exactly Avtalyon meant – it doesn’t sound good. What if that article profaned the Name of Heaven, instead of sanctifying it as I intended? Of course I care!
See, that’s why I use so many words; I’m trying to be abundantly clear. Friends tease me for my numerous disclaimers, yet even with all the words, all the disclaimers I can think of – it’s never foolproof. How can we ever be careful enough with our words?
In a more recent example, I wrote about challenges in trying to navigate shul attendance (and teaching our children to value shul attendance) as parents. The (attempted) balancing act I described resonated for many people and I got some lovely feedback. I was particularly gratified when a friend who is a pulpit rabbi (and himself a parent) shared the article on his Facebook page, saying he was “touched” by what I had written.
But I also got other comments on my own Facebook page, which led me to ask there whether it sounded like I was “advocating for some sort of free-for-all.” I tried to clarify: “I wasn’t talking about people letting their kids go crazy or babies scream; just the in-between situations like the baby starts to make a little bit of noise and you have to decide whether to go out or try to calm them. Or the kid is mostly quiet but forgets once in a while and has to be reminded. Did that not come across clearly?”
One friend responded, “Honestly, it sounds like yes, you are advocating for a free for all.”
Just because I knew what I meant, and some readers did too, didn’t mean it was evident to everyone.
As the discussion continued, I saw how differing interpretations might stem from different experiences. Not an earth-shattering observation – I talk about that sort of thing all the time when teaching – but I still found it striking in that context. I have almost never seen parents turn a completely blind eye to whatever their kids do in shul, so that extreme wasn’t even on my radar. But in the minds of those who have encountered that kind of insensitivity, there is a real risk of free-for-all inherent in the very notion of bringing children to shul, so they saw that in what I wrote.
How can I ever really know how others might read what I’ve written, when I haven’t lived their lives?
What kind of negative influence might I have without ever knowing it (on the chance that any reader would listen to what they think I’m saying)? What kind of “exile” or worse might I cause, with my audacious attempts to say things to the world?
Of course, misunderstandings arise all the time, in every area of life.
I’m sometimes blown away by the extent to which one person can misunderstand another even in the most mundane situations. Occasionally, when my husband has misunderstood me in ways I couldn’t fathom, I’ve tried getting him to shoulder some of the responsibility. “But, why would you think I said we should do that? I would never think we should do that!” “Well, I was surprised, but you said it, so I figured that’s what you wanted!” “Do me a favor: If ever it seems like I’m saying something bizarre – don’t assume I want something bizarre – ask what I meant!”
In the realm of Torah study – I once wrote about our responsibility as learners to ask questions and keep learning when something doesn’t seem to make sense, and I stand by that message in all areas of life – spousal discussions of logistics and reading articles and Torah study and all.
But of course, it doesn’t always work that way. The listener could be just as certain of what they heard as the speaker is about what they said, so who would think to ask?
When it comes to the potential[ly wide] gap between one person’s intent and another person’s understanding – the responsibility goes both ways.
I’d love to ask readers to shoulder some responsibility for my words, to put out the same plea I make to my husband: If it seems like I’m saying something bizarre, ask!
But on the (approximate) anniversary of my first submission to OU Life, and as I prepare to share Avtalyon’s words with my students in the coming weeks, I’m more interested in my own responsibility as a writer and teacher – and really, just as a human being who ever says anything to another human being – to use extreme caution with my words. The disclaimers might increase my word count, but I believe in them.
“Be careful with your words.”
No one can possibly be careful enough to preclude any possibility of misunderstanding; we do need some help from the other party. But I can still do my best to put myself in readers’ shoes – or eyes, brains, whatever – and pray that my attempts to say stuff will prove just careful enough to prevent negative outcomes.
We can all do our best to consider carefully to whom we’re speaking, how they might interpret our words, and what negative outcomes we might unwittingly spark if we don’t take sufficient care.
Because we’ve got more than enough exile to deal with already.
Sarah C. Rudolph is a Jewish educator and freelance writer. She has been sharing her passion for Jewish texts of all kinds for over 15 years, with students of all ages. Sarah’s essays have been published in a variety of internet and print media, including Times of Israel, Kveller, Jewish Action, The Lehrhaus, TorahMusings, and more. Sarah lives in Cleveland with her husband and four children, but is privileged to learn online with students all over the world through www.TorahTutors.org and www.WebYeshiva.org.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.