Sunday, January 13, 2013

Is Trash Talking Kosher?

WHEN YOUNG KIDS ARE VERBALLY harassed by other children they are taught to respond to their provokers by saying that, “sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me,” conveying the message that words are not physically damaging and therefore aren’t bothersome. While this phrase has become somewhat effective as a tool to prevent bullying, it actually runs counter to the Jewish idea of speech.

Judaism believes that our ability to speak is a very precious gift that God has bestowed on us and must only be used for constructive purposes. Any attempt to use our speech for destructive purposes is, essentially, a rejection of our God given gift. In fact, tradition emphasizes the unique power of speech by relating that God created the world with 10 utterances. In other words, Jewish tradition maintains that words are so holy that they have the ability to create new realities.

The biblical story of the Tower of Babel is a prime example of how speech can be misused. All the inhabitants of the world, at that time, spoke one language and, as a result, were united. They decided to build a tower that would reach the heavens in an attempt to ‘fight’ with and overthrow God. These people took their gift of speech; the ability to communicate clearly with every other inhabitant of the world, and used it for harmful and negative purposes. Ultimately, God punished the people for their attempt to destroy Him by making them unable to communicate with each other.

The problem of verbal harassment is not limited to children in the schoolyard or at the park. It applies equally to adults and children alike. Athletes are certainly not strangers to ‘trash talk’. Certainly not Kevin Garnett. A couple seasons ago, Garnett, insulted Milwaukee Buck forward, Charlie Villenueva, by telling him that he looks like a cancer patient. Garnett claimed he told Villenueva that he is a cancer to his team; not that he looked like one. Regardless of which version was true, both of those statements were inappropriate. And this week, he went after Carmelo Anthony, hurling insults about his strained relationship with wife, La La.



I’m not implying that all forms trash talk are wrong. Trash talk which engenders a competitive spirit and creates a lively battle between two players can be perfectly acceptable. But I don’t believe that there is a place in sports for degrading an opponent. I understand why athletes, like Garnett, talk trash: it psychologically distracts an opponent and throws him off his game. However, there is a line that must be drawn when it comes to trash talking, and degrading another player crosses the line.

But the lesson that must be learned today is that God gives us the ability to use our gift of speech. It’s supposed to be used for productive purposes and not negative ones. The type of trash talk that Kevin Garnett employed as a strategy to get under Melo’s and Villenueva’s skin was destructive. He took his God given gift and sullied it.

And, yes, Laker fans, the “Boston Sucks” chant should be put into retirement.


Rabbi Joshua Hess is a co-founder of the PopJewish.com blog and an Orthodox rabbi in Linden, NJ. Follow him no Twitter at @RabbiHess.