Words have the Power to Destroy... and to Heal

As Jews, we know that words are powerful. The Torah teaches that God created the entire universe through the power of language, and rabbinic tradition builds on the idea that our words too create realities and shape worlds. Words, when used correctly, can help to unite, build, empower, heal and redeem. Words used carelessly, or wielded as weapons, have the power to divide and destroy.

This weekend, many of us watched in horror as white supremacy groups converged on the city of Charlottesville, Virginia, and tragedy unfolded.  Who would have thought that we would ever witness a moment like this in our lifetime, when Nazis and KKK members would march in the open (no hoods = no shame) in the streets of an American city!?  The description in this account from the president of Congregation Beth Israel in Charlottesville -- of Shabbat morning services taking place while parades of Nazis passed by outside the building, some carrying swastika flags, shouting, "There's the synagogue!" followed by chants of "Sieg Heil" -- is chilling and feels like something out of a dystopian novel.

As the level of bigoted rhetoric, violence, and loss of life left many of us shocked and speechless in the moment, we looked to our country’s leadership to speak out and denounce these people for what they truly are: hate groups that have no place in our society.  Many politicians from both sides of the aisle spoke out quickly and strongly, with powerful words of condemnation.  However, the one voice that everyone needed to hear condemn the hate groups was sorely lacking.  Donald Trump's words -- and particularly his claim that "both sides are to blame" -- has created further injury rather than offering any comfort or healing.  As Rabbi Shai Held wrote powerfully over the weekend: "To wink at racism, to fail to condemn it without equivocation, is to be complicit with evil. To give a pass to leaders who equivocate is to be complicit with evil. It is unconscionable and unforgivable."

As Jews, we know that words are powerful.  The Torah teaches that God created the entire universe through the power of language, and rabbinic tradition builds on the idea that our words too create realities and shape worlds.  Words, when used correctly, can help to unite, build, empower, heal and redeem.  Words used carelessly, or wielded as weapons, have the power to divide and destroy.

How will we respond to words of hate and terror we heard on the streets of Charlottesville, and also to the words of cowardice and moral anemia that emanated from the Trump tower yesterday afternoon?  Our Jewish community will respond with words* of love and compassion.  (*Yes, we will also continue to respond with actions that go far beyond words, as well: building partnerships and interfaith alliances both locally and nationally, donating funds to organizations that protect the most vulnerable members of our society, calling elected officials to express our opinions and concerns, organizing in support of justice, etc.  But for now, let's just focus on the words.) 

Over the next week, we will be writing letters to the people of Charlottesville most directly impacted by this past weekend’s violence: to our fellow Jews at Congregation Beth Israel, to communities of color, and to the chapter of the IRC which does the work of refugee resettlement in the Charlottesville area.  In solidarity, we will try to put words to paper that can strengthen and support our brothers and sisters in a community that is reeling (much as we've done before when we have reached out personally to contacts in Charleston, South Carolina and in Whitefish, Montana). Please drop us a line if you'd like to join together with other Kavana folks for a letter-writing gathering next week, and we'll keep you posted as details for these gatherings crystallize; you're also welcome to write your own letters and drop them by Kavana HQ by August 25th if you'd like them to be included in our communal care packages. 

Then, on September 10th, we will gather together to have a face-to-face conversation on racial inequality with Talya Gillman, co-founder of Jews Undoing Institutional Racism. Together, we'll have a chance to explore topics related to shared historical trauma and anti-semitism, and then expand out to the broader narratives of other persecuted groups for whom the threat of hatred and violence still looms large. Please see below for more details.

We hope you will bring your voice, your words of concern and comfort to these two special programs in the coming month of Elul, the month of introspection and self-examination that leads up to our Jewish New Year.  This past year has been filled with far too many harsh, unkind and destructive words. As we prepare to welcome a New Year together, let us offer our words and raise our voices together to help radiate hope and love from our little corner of the map.

With prayers that our collective words will indeed have the power to shape a new reality for our country,

Rabbi Sydney Danziger & Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum