Language Helps to Shape Reality

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By Rabbi Robyn Frisch 

Parshat Balak

What would you do if you were living in the ancient Near East and you were afraid of the Israelites, who were journeying toward their Promised Land? You could attack them. But if you were concerned about your chances of success, you might instead send a prophet to curse them, deciding to rely on language rather than force.

That’s what Balak the King of Moab (after whom this week’s Torah portion is named) decided to do.

Balak sent the seer Balaam to curse the Israelites, hoping to weaken them so that his people could then defeat them in battle. In fact, Balak sent Balaam three times to curse the Israelites, but each time God instead caused words of blessing to come from the prophet’s mouth. (The third blessing includes the words “Mah tovu ohalecha Ya’akov, mishkenotecha Yisrael,” or “How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel.” These words from Torah became part of Jewish liturgy, and they’re recited at the beginning of the daily morning service.)

In the biblical mindset, blessings and curses weren’t just words. They were understood to shape reality. By reciting words of blessing, Balaam was causing the Israelites to be blessed. Perhaps this isn’t surprising considering that, according to the Bible, the world itself was created through words. In the very first chapter of Genesis, God willed the world into being through words, beginning with God’s first pronouncement: “Let there be light.”

In recent years, critical theorists have noted what the Bible and Jewish sages knew all along: Language doesn’t just reflect reality and the way people think; it also shapes reality and the way people think.

I see this regularly in my work with interfaith couples and families. For example, I often hear parents of adult children in the Jewish community say: “My child is marrying someone very nice, but they’re not Jewish.”

By adding this extra phrase, beginning with the “but,” Jewish parents are expressing a discomfort with, sometimes even a distaste for, their child marrying someone of another religious background. This does more than just reflect the Jewish parent’s way of thinking; it perpetuates this way of thinking and continues to create an atmosphere where spouses and partners who aren’t Jewish — and often their Jewish partners and children as well — feel like second-class citizens.

Similarly, in the Jewish community the word “problem” is too often used when speaking about interfaith relationships, as in: “What can we do to combat the problem of interfaith marriage?”

By using this language, we’re making people in interfaith marriages (both the Jews and their partners) feel that they themselves are problems for the Jewish community. Since people often don’t want to be involved when they’re considered to be a problem, we’re not only perpetuating an outdated way of thinking, but we’re also contributing to the problem by making it so that interfaith couples and families will be less likely to engage with the Jewish community.

Additionally, when someone is told “your name doesn’t sound Jewish,” or “you don’t look Jewish” (and really, what does it even mean to look Jewish in today’s world?) — as so often happens to children in interfaith families — it can be more than just hurtful. It can affect the way they think and feel about themselves.

In large part because most of us who are Jewish have close family members of other religious backgrounds, intentional derogatory comments toward and about people in interfaith relationships are fortunately becoming less common. But, too often, Jews continue to use language that’s unintentionally insensitive to people in interfaith relationships.

Even though the person using the language may not intend for it to be hurtful, the impact is still the same. It’s hurtful to the person about whom it’s spoken, and it’s hurtful to the reality that we continue to shape.

As we approach Shabbat Balak, let us all reflect on the language we use and recognize its tremendous power. Just as God, in the first chapter of Genesis, used words to create the world and shape reality, may we, God’s partner’s in creation, use our words to shape a reality that is welcoming and inclusive to all those who choose to align themselves with the Jewish community — both those of us who are Jewish as well as those of other backgrounds who have fallen in love with Jews and who have cast their destiny with that of the Jewish people.

If we do this, then we will truly be worthy of the blessing spoken by Balaam in this week’s Torah portion: “Mah tovu ohalecha Ya’akov, mishkenotecha Yisrael,” or “How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel.” 

Rabbi Robyn Frisch is the director of InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia and the founding director of InterfaithFamily’s Rabbinic Fellowship Program. She is also the spiritual leader of Temple Menorah Keneseth Chai. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.

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