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Joseph Telushkin

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin to speak about Words that Hurt, Words that Heal--the Need for Civil Discourse-May 9,2019

by Rhonda Spivak, March 27, 2019


Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, named by Talk Magazine as one of the 50 best speakers in the United States, will be this year’s Adas Yeshurun Herzlia Presents featured speaker, generously sponsored by the Asper Foundation.Rabbi Telushkin, a highly respected scholar and author of more than 15 books,  will be the speaking  at Adas-Yeshurun Herzlia synagogue on May 9, 2019 at 7 p.m. 

Rabbi Telushkin will speak about his book Words that Hurt, Words that Heal, which was just re-released. The first edition was the motivating force behind Senators Joseph Lieberman and Connie Mack’s 1996 Senate Resolution #151 to establish a “National Speak No Evil Day” throughout the United States.


In his book "Words that Hurt, Words that Heal", Rabbi Telushkin is concerned about the subject of "civil discourse." As he explains, "Civil discourse is the essence of a society being able to stay together." He points to the biblical text about Joseph. "Joseph's brothers resent him terribly...They have reasons. Their father favours him and he gives him [Joseph]special gifts, and he [Joseph] even tattles on them." According to the biblical text  "They [the brothers] couldn't speak peaceably to Joseph and the next thing we learn is that they [the brothers] decide to murder him and then as a compromise to that they sell him [Joseph] into slavery.... It's a biblical prototype of what happens when people can no longer speak peaceably to each other. They either stop speaking altogether or they say such offensive things that they no longer make an effort to come to know each other."

As Telushkin , who was ordained at Yeshiva University in New York, and pursued graduate studies in Jewish history at Columbia University, concludes, when people can not speak peaceably to each other, "they stigmatize the other person", and the other person becomes "evil."
Telushkin serves on the Advisory Council and Scholar’s Council for The World’s Jewish Museum, the iconic Frank Gehry-designed museum due to open in Tel Aviv in honor of Israel’s seventy-fifth anniversary. In his interview with the Winnipeg Jewish Review, he notes that every four years during election season, he asks "passionate conservatives and liberals" whether they can think of a single reason why someone might vote for the person they oppose, and "rarely" can they think of such a reason. Instead they assume that 100% of the truth is on their side and 0% on the other side. In this way, a person comes to "demonize people" with whom they disagree. As Rabbi Telushkin emphasizes "A society that demonizes ends up being a society that has the potential to fall apart." Rabbi Telushkin is of the view that on virtually any issue it is unlikely that 100 percent of your side is correct and that zero percent is correct on the other side. The question, he says, becomes "whether you can look for partial truths even in a position in which you disagree."
In  an interview Rabbi Telushkin gave to the Jewish Light in December 2018, he referred to  "baseless hatred," the opposite of civil discourse. He said "From Jewish history we learn that one of the causes of the destruction of the Second Temple was baseless hatred. In today’s divided society, Jews are caught in the middle. When you go to the far right or to the far left, it results not in a discussion of what we agree on, but what divides us. We need to start meeting in the middle."

The Winnipeg Jewish Review also asked Rabbi Telushkin about Judaism's prohibition against lashon hara (“evil tongue”). Rabbi Telushkin says that lashon hara" is talk that lowers the esteem in which a person is held," But, while many Jews are familiar with the term lashon hara, he adds  most people don’t know that by definition, "lashon hara is a statement that is true."


“But the fact that something is true doesn’t mean that people have the right to know it,” Rabbi Telushkin explains.  “There are times when you have the right to say something negative about another person," Rabbi Telushkin notes, indicating he would speak about this in more detail during his talk in Winnipeg. 


Rabbi Telushkin  adds, if a statement is false and negative, "it’s an even more severe offence" since it amounts to  "slander". Before a person  says something about another, he wants that person to ask themselves whether the matter is it true, and even if it’s true, is it fair and is it necessary?


During his talks, Rabbi Telushkin says, he often inquires whether audience members can think of an incident in their own life “that you would be very embarrassed if other people knew about ?”


He says that virtually all raise their hands, "except for people with poor memories, those who are lying, or those who have led very boring lives.”  And if somebody spread that information about us, "it would tend to shape other peoples perceptions of us " and we would be very angry if the information was circulated. "Even if it’s true, nobody else has the right to know it,"he emphasizes


In an interview he gave to the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle, Rabbi Telushkin said "People should refrain from talking about others, even when it comes to public figures. He added.“It doesn’t mean [public figures] should be protected from criticism, but we can’t go around denying any level of privacy to people.”"


Speaking about modern Israel, Rabbi Telushkin points out that "words that hurt have in the history of Israel had a very detrimental effect." For example, he notes that "the hate campaign directed against Yitzhak Rabin including people at demonstrations who depicted Rabin as if he was wearing a Nazi  garment, a swastika, was horrific and it helped set the stage " for Rabin's murder.  Rabbi Telushkin indicates that "crimes of hate are invariably proceeded by [hateful] words ," words "that dehumanize another."


Rabbi Telushkin gives another example of "words that hurt" affecting the modern history of Israel.David Ben-Gurion, Israel's founding Prime Minister "had an enormous dislike for Menachem Begin", leader of the Revisionist opposition. "Ben-Gurion even once wrote in a letter to someone saying that if Begin becomes Prime Minister he'll rule over it the way Hitler ruled over Germany," Telushkin notes. Ben-Gurion subsequently came to realize that that was excessive. "Begin had hateful things to say about Ben-Gurion,"  Telushkin adds. The two men had entirely different visions for the new Jewish state. It was only later on, in the face of the impending Six Day War  [after Ben-Gurion was no longer Prime Minister] that Begin was brought into the government." Eventually years later they actually reconciled."


"When people can't speak to each other and each of them has something worth contributing, it creates a terrible dilemma for the society and it polarizes people and that's been a big issue," Rabbi Telushkin says."When I come [to Winnipeg] I hope to speak more about words that heal."


Individual tickets to hear Rabb Telushkin are $36 and there are a range of sponsorship levels that include reserved seating, a reception with Rabbi Telushkin and a tax receipt. 

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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

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