Ah finer mentch, an ehrlicher Yid – these are the kinds of titles that Jews have historically coveted. To be called grub (coarse, sunken in physicality) or a bulvan (a boorish, brutish person) is an insult.
And yet, I often meet otherwise frum Jews who use curse or crude words in conversation as if it were the most natural thing in the world. Some restrict themselves to minor indiscretions, but others use the worst swear words without a trace of embarrassment in their voice.
If they’re speaking to me, I often wonder: Does it not occur to them that I might feel uncomfortable hearing these words? Many people avoid swearing before women or rabbis. I am neither a rabbi nor a woman. But I still don’t quite understand why these very same people didn’t swear in my presence 20 years ago but do so now. Yes, I’m older – therefore what? Therefore I enjoy crassness?
I’m not so holy. But one need not be “farfrumt” to consider swearing coarse. My mother grew up in an unobservant family, yet told me that swearing was practically considered a capital offense in her home. My father was far from a right-wing fanatic. He grew up in a typical American Orthodox home in the 1950s and ‘60s and greatly detested Orthodox society’s “turn to the right” in the latter two decades of the 20th century. Yet, in my entire life, I never heard him utter a curse word or make a crude joke or remark.
The Torah tells us, “Be holy.” The Ramban asks: What’s the nature of this commandment? Isn’t being holy just a matter of following the Torah’s detailed laws?
No, the Ramban answers. You can follow all the Torah’s laws and still be a depraved individual (a “naval birshus haTorah”). How so? The Ramban offers just three examples. One of them is using dirty language. The Torah never explicitly says, “Don’t speak coarsely.” But it does say “Be holy” and therefore we Jews may not use obscene language – or “nivul peh” – says the Ramban.
What does nivul peh mean? “Navel” means to wither. Speech is the “function which mainly distinguishes man from animal,” writes Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch. “The spoken word of man is, or should be, something noble, spiritual Divine.” Using crass language thus amounts to a “withering, degradation, [a] killing of the mouth.” Instead of using one’s lips for refined speech, one is using them for coarseness.
Rav Hirsch continues:
Beware of the consequences of impure talk…. Flee from every circle, flee from every associate, that allows you to hear obscene, brute-like talk. Nivul peh is the venom with which youths who have become brutes themselves poison the minds of their innocent friends. The unclean word which has been heard stains the spirit, stains the heart…and pulls you down into the mud – flee! And you, Jewish parents! If the purity of your son and daughter is dear unto you, yourselves refrain from every obscene word – and show the door to every friend of your family whose talk sounds brute-like – he is not a real friend of your family!
The Gemara (Shabbos 33a) quotes a baraisa that states that due to the use of obscene language, “calamities increase, harsh decrees originate, the ‘young men of Israel’s enemies’ [a euphemism for young Jewish men] die, and orphans and widows cry out but aren’t answered.”
A person who speaks obscenely, writes Rabbeinu Yonah, has “desecrated the vessel of intelligence [i.e., the mouth] which is more precious than all other desirable vessels.” He is “heavy with sin, loathsome, and detested” and has “forsaken and deserted shame and modesty, which are the recognized features of the holy seed [of Israel.”
Unfortunately, we American Jews live in a morally degenerate culture, yet even this culture bans curse words from mainstream television, newspapers, and polite discourse. Even politicians who swear freely in private make a point of not doing so in public.
We should do one better. If swearing is wrong in public, it’s wrong in private too. G-d sees, and hears, everything.
The opinions expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect those of the full editorial board of The Jewish Press.