Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Let’s discuss “cursing”, i.e., vulgar language

Let’s discuss “cursing”, i.e., vulgar, foul, or offensive language often called “profanity”, “expletives” or simply “cussing”. (Another form of “cursing”: malediction or imprecation, is not the subject of the following discussion.) (All scripture from the CJB unless noted.)

On Facebook recently, we at The Refiner’s Fire came upon a Messianic Believer, an “assistant rabbi to Yeshua”, who seemed to have no compunction about the use of profanity – cursing – in his writings or displayed in ‘memes’ posted on his Facebook page. When confronted, (James 5:19-20), he responded harshly – rebuking us and telling us to “crawl back under that rock you crawled out of”. Our attempt to bring him back from his wandering path incensed him so that he went on to post a long article “justifying” the use of curse words! (Reading his screed, I could not help but notice the rabbi cited not a single verse of scripture. Not one.)

While it is true that some words/phrases found in scripture can be interpreted as obscenity (at least in the oldest, “unsanitized” manuscripts), many readers, lacking knowledge of ancient languages and failing to comprehend the underlying meaning and context of the scriptures conclude, naively, that “Since obscenity is in the Bible, it must be okay!” Well, the Bible also describes certain Kings who kept concubines, and rape is mentioned in scripture several times so by that logic, these things too must be okay! Right? One could assume however, that our assistant rabbi, bearing his title, would not lack this key knowledge and NOT draw such false conclusions. Well, hold the phone...

While our errant rabbi does not use the common argument above, he declares instead: “There is a big difference between cursing someone and using a cuss word, not to mention a cuss word to one person may not mean the same thing to another based on their culture and traditions.” He goes on to list a variety of words considered vulgar today, many of which can and do carry multiple meanings. He even offered some of those variant meanings as examples, concluding: “Are any of these words that people consider to be vulgar listed in the Torah? If they are not, then the words we think of as vulgar are based on our personal opinions. It is our cultural view as to what we by tradition claim to be vulgar, they are subjective to our feelings and opinions.

Thus, according to this "learned rabbi," it’s perfectly okay to use modern vulgarity, obscenities, and profanity because what is intended is a matter of opinion!

Notice his argument. Rather than claim that profanity is “okay because it is condoned in the Bible” (which is it not), he argues “profanity is okay because the words we use today are NOT found in the Bible”! Hmmm. Many words are not found in the Bible! Take “sexting” for example. Not found in scripture. So are we to conclude sexting is permitted by scripture? Arguing so is called “caviling”. Our “assistant rabbi” has decided to justify his verbal behavior by caviling.

Caviling is making a trivial or frivolous argument or objection. It’s truly caviling to justify obscene language and profanity when what the whole of the Bible clearly defines who we are supposed to be as children of YHWH and what Scripture conveys about how we are supposed to behave. We are to be “set apart”. (Deuteronomy 7:6, 14:2, John 17:19). Justifying profanity is simply defending one’s worldly carnality – quite the opposite of holy living, which is being set apart from the filth of the world!

Our “assistant rabbi” is no doubt well aware of the meaning and intent of all the commonly known words which are vulgar, obscene, foul, derogatory, offensive, etc. The fact that “they [the words] have different meanings” is an empty argument as is the excuse that “one word to one person may be offensive to some and not to others” or that it depends on culture or tradition. Caviling! Expletives are actually much like pornography. When asked to describe his definition of pornography in Jacobellis v. Ohio in 1964, Chief Justice Potter Stewart stated:
“I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description [i.e., "hard-core pornography"], and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it…
And so does our assistant rabbi “know profanity when he sees it!” Let’s agree that profanity is “abusive, vulgar, or irreverent language”, a dictionary definition, regardless of the cultural or traditional aspects and abandon the caviling. The question is how can we know, without a doubt, that profanity should not cross our lips in any intentional manner and that there is no room in the lives of truly God-fearing, repentant people for the inclusion of profanity in their language?

Let’s discuss this concept of “set apart” and see if that helps. Leviticus 11:44-45, 19:2, 20:7-8, 20:26; and Deuteronomy 14:2 all require YHWH’s people to “be holy”. So one of the first things you should be asking yourself when you first read scripture is “What does it mean for me to ‘be holy’?” This brief article may give you a hint:

The command to “be holy” is just as applicable to us today as it was in Biblical times. (Why would THEY need to “be holy” and not us?) Who we are and how we behave, in large part, determines (and demonstrates) if we are “holy” people. Our language speaks volumes (no pun intended) as to the state of our heart and mind, and is a very expressive representation of “who we are”. Being holy “sets us apart” from common things. Now what does that mean?

Take a look at Exodus 19:5-6, Deuteronomy 7:6, 14:2, and John 17:19 and see what you think. The common thread in these scriptures is that for us to be a people for YHWH, we do not live by the ways of the world (Deuteronomy 18:9). This is rephrased in John 15:19-20 and Romans 12:2. The ways of the world are “unclean”, and nothing “unclean” can be in YHWH’s presence (Leviticus 15:31, Numbers 19:20, Revelation 21:27). To be “set apart” means we conduct our lives as best we can in maintenance of a state of cleanliness in mind, body, and spirit.

What we read today in the part of the Bible we know as the “New Testament” has quite a number of amplifications or clarifications of this concept of being “set apart”. See for example 2 Corinthians 7:1, 1 John 3:2-4, Matthew 5:8, Colossians 3:5, 1 Thessalonians 4:1-7, Titus 1:15, James 4:8, the list goes on and on. What sort of picture of how children of YHWH are supposed to live do you see in these scriptures?

What does this have to do with vulgarities in speech? Well, there are no specific commands in scripture to “not speak in vulgarities, obscenities, profanities, expletives, etc.,” so I am showing you how to see it for yourself. We find quite a number of scriptures, part of those “amplifications or clarifications” which provide solid evidence that YHWH’s people don’t voluntarily speak using such language and expect to remain holy, set apart.

“What makes a person unclean is not what goes into his mouth; rather, what comes out of his mouth, that is what makes him unclean!” (Matthew 15:11)

“…what comes out of your mouth is actually coming from your heart, and that is what makes a person unclean.” (Matthew 15:18)

“Let no harmful language come from your mouth, only good words that are helpful in meeting the need, words that will benefit those who hear them.” (Ephesians 4:29) 

“Also out of place are obscenity and stupid talk or coarse language; instead, you should be giving thanks.” (Ephesians 5:4)

“Do all you can to present yourself to God as someone worthy of his approval, as a worker with no need to be ashamed, because he deals straightforwardly with the Word of the Truth. But keep away from godless babbling, for those who engage in it will only become more ungodly, and their teaching will eat away at people like gangrene” (2 Timothy 2:15-17)

“Let your speech be always with grace, seasoned with salt, that ye may know how ye ought to answer each one.” (Colossians 4:6, ASV)

“So too the tongue is a tiny part of the body, yet it boasts great things. See how a little fire sets a whole forest ablaze! Yes, the tongue is a fire, a world of wickedness. The tongue is so placed in our body that it defiles every part of it, setting ablaze the whole of our life; and it is set on fire by Gei-Hinnom itself. For people have tamed and continue to tame all kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures; but the tongue no one can tame — it is an unstable and evil thing, full of death-dealing poison! With it we bless Adonai, the Father; and with it we curse people, who were made in the image of God. Out of the same mouth come blessing and cursing! Brothers, it isn't right for things to be this way. A spring doesn't send both fresh and bitter water from the same opening, does it? Can a fig tree yield olives, my brothers? Or a grapevine, figs? Neither does salt water produce fresh.” (James 3:5-12)

Control of one’s mouth is not just a “New Testament” thing. A number of Psalms show the tongue is for praise. Psalm 35:27-28 says “But may those who delight in my righteousness shout for joy and be glad! Let them say always, ‘How great is Adonai, who delights in the peace of his servant!’ Then my tongue will tell of your righteousness and praise you all day long.” Psalm 119:171-172 reads “Let my lips speak praise, because you teach me your laws. Let my tongue sing of your promise, because all your mitzvot are righteous.” Psalm 50:16-21 says: “But to the wicked God says: ‘What right do you have to proclaim my laws or take my covenant on your lips, when you so hate to receive instruction and fling my words behind you? When you see a thief, you join up with him, you throw in your lot with adulterers, you give your mouth free rein for evil and harness your tongue to deceit; you sit and speak against your kinsman, you slander your own mother's son. When you do such things, should I stay silent? You may have thought I was just like you; but I will rebuke and indict you to your face’.”

These Psalms do not say, “My tongue will sing praise – as soon as I’m done cursing!”

Considering the Psalms, let us return to the command to “be holy” (for example, Leviticus 19:2). The Hebrew word for “holy” is “kadosh”, and kadosh can also mean “saint.” Jewish sages have written that kadosh, actually means to be “distinct” or “separate.” So the commandment to “be holy” can be understood more deeply as “be separate”. The Hebrew words “ve’amar’ta ‘ele’him kedoshim ti’h’yoo” literally means “say to them ‘become holy people’”.

This requires action on the part of the people. They must do something to “become holy people”. This understanding of “be holy” goes a long way to explain why the Torah is filled with so many specific “do's and don’ts” which begin to define what it is to “be holy”.  So “be holy”, actually demands that you embrace a life beyond the mere list of “do's and don’ts”! YHWH is saying, “Live your life for Me distinct and separate from the common.”

While there is no specific prohibition if vulgar speech in Torah, it is folly to expect that Torah could possibly list all that is permitted and all that is prohibited to spell out what it means to “be holy”! Speech is taken for granted by most and is thought simply a superficial act. Our "assistant rabbi" and his lengthy justification for using vulgarity, amply demonstrates this. But is speech superficial? Go back and read James 3:5-12 again (above).

In truth your speech has just as strong an impact on your inner self as it does on others. The words from your mouth engrave a mark on your mind and heart. Foul words slowly eat away at your character. No matter how strong the foundation of your character, a few obscene words crack that foundation and weaken it. As a building slowly becomes unstable with a damaged foundation, so one’s character is slowly destroyed by their speech. That is why vulgarity is not to be used. And that is why is it not necessary for vulgarity to be expressly prohibited in scripture. Vulgarity is the antithesis of “holy”.

I’m going to close with a story: A teacher went about the community while speaking crudely and using foul and offensive language. Soon, he noticed fewer and fewer people would gather around for him to teach. One day, he found no one would talk to him. That night, he realized the wrong he had done, how he had offended everyone in town and began to feel remorse. He went to the rabbi to find out what he could do, saying he would do anything he could to make amends to the town. The rabbi told the man, "Take a feather pillow, cut it open, and scatter the feathers to the winds." The man puzzled a moment about how that would help, but it was not a difficult assignment, and he went home and did as the rabbi said. When he returned the next day to tell the rabbi that he had completed the task, the rabbi said, "Now, go and gather all the feathers.” The man’s heart sank. “I can’t”, he said. The rabbi continued, “And you can no more make amends for the damage your words have done than you can recover all the feathers."

Thankfully, when in the anger of the moment, we let a foul or obscene word slip out, our great and merciful Creator will forgive us. We know this because we are His and when we acknowledge our sin, we are forgiven (1 John 1:9). But if you are a believer who sees nothing wrong with making obscene and vulgar language a part of your day-to-day speech you might want to consider spending some time on your knees.

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