Sunday, April 28, 2013
David Ortiz's Expletive: A Lesson From Leviticus (Jewish Week)
Special To The Jewish Week
At Fenway Park, with Bostonians celebrating the end of their excruciating, week-long siege, Red Sox slugger David Ortiz wrapped things up in one brief exclamation. "This is our (bleeping) city!" he cried, and the crowd went wild, while in bars across America, millions of people turned to total strangers and asked, "Did he just SAY that?"
Well, I taped the event and yes he did.
ESPN managed to bleep it out. But NESN was not so fortunate. Neither were the radio broadcasts and all the five year old children at Fenway that day; but that probably doesn't matter, because their parents weren't exactly covering their kids' ears. Everyone was just happy to be happy, and Ortiz' expletive apparently was the most emphatic way to express that.
I admit. I was too busy laughing through my tears to worry about the ballplayer's proclamation, moved as I was by the pregame tribute and the indefatigable nature of my hometown, and relieved that the bombers had been caught.
But now, it's time to question whether we have gone too far, to the point where every (bleeping) conversation is beginning to sound like a Nixon tape.
Why do we need to swear so (bleeping) much? Have we lost the ability to converse, to articulate emphasis without resorting to insulting people's sexual behavior, especially in regard to their mothers?
Simon Critchley wrote recently in the New York Times, "We know swear words are literally meaningless... Yet they carry a force that compels us." Thousands of years ago, Leviticus said essentially the same thing. In chapter 24, two Israelites are having a fight. One had an Egyptian father, which may have been the cause of some resentment or friction between the two. Who knows? But the end result was that one of them blasphemed, and the punishment was determined to be stoning.
On the face of it, the whole thing seems absurd, like the scene right out of Monty Python. Come to think of it, this WAS a scene from a Monty Python flick. But the deeper message of this passage, and of the entire book of Leviticus, is that words matter. Jewish tradition compares the one who gossips to a murderer. The very next verse, in fact, deals with the laws of murder, making this comparison most explicit, not just for the idle gossiper, but specifically for the one who curses God.
For what does it mean to curse God's name? If, as we read in Genesis, every human being is created in God's image, that divine part of us that is the essence of our humanity. To insult God is to debase our own innate godliness, our human capacity for goodness and kindness.
Sometimes curses can be a creative way of dealing with powerlessness. We see that in the colorful Yiddish curses that have sprung up. And Jews have had good reason to shake their fist at the heavens. When Job's wife implores, "Curse God and die," Job has every reason to do just that - but he refuses to, recognizing that God's blessings and curses are intertwined. In fact, the very word translated as "curse" in Job 2:9 is "barekh", which also means to bless. Job refuses to render God one-dimensional, the source only of evil and not of life's blessings too.
That's what cursing does. It turns God into a stereotype. Once "bleeping" becomes your only way of express passion, you are unable to communicate creatively, to probe the complexity of deeper feelings.
Swearing takes the bedroom and turns it into the bathroom. Rather than elevating the mundane experiences of everyday life, as the holiness code of Leviticus implores us to do, swearing does just the opposite. It takes all that is sacred and holy and tosses it onto Job's ash heap. All swearing is ultimately a form of blasphemy, a choice not for life but decay and stagnation. To swear is to succumb to impulse rather than to rise above it.
I confess. I swear -- but only rarely. So when I swear, you know I'm mad. You can just ask my kids. Sometimes we all lose control. But when I encounter supposedly pious Jews with foul mouths, it makes me wonder how far their piety really extends. If they are so abusive with language, so unable to control themselves from inflicting verbal blows on God, are they really able to control their gossip, their tempers, and even their physical abuse of others? Can someone who has garbage constantly coming out of his mouth really be vigilant about the kashrut of the things that go into it? Are people that needy of appearing cool?
Everything that we hold sacred came into the world through divine speech. And now we are losing the sanctity of speech.
I don't blame David Ortiz for this. He didn't cause the problem Even the FCC gave Ortiz a pass. His passionate outburst did reflect how Bostonians felt after finally being released from the grip of the psychological - and real - pressure cooker of a horrible week.
Studies show that our society hasn't gotten worse, at least since the Swearin' '70s, just that foul language has become less regulated since the days of George Carlin's pre-HBO "Seven Words you Can't Say on Television." Nothing wrong with more freedom. What's wrong is, once the thrill of breaking one taboo is gone, it's all too easy to go on to the next one.
As our society rightly focuses its attention on our addiction to violence and guns, maybe we should spend a moment reflecting on that instant when that anger first gets out of control. Long before the pressure cookers and semi automatic guns, long before the bloody video games, there is filthy, unchecked language. Long before bullets, it is the words that wound. Creation began with words and social disintegration does too.
In the Beginning, there were words -- and none of them began with an F.