middot humility daily living is profanity unclean?

is profanity unclean?

Written by  rabbi michael schiffman

art-swearingAs a native New Yorker, profanity is my first language.  In New York, profane language is not considered sin or evil, but is simply a way of exclamating your comments.  It lets people know you feel strongly about something.

Having lived for many years in exile from New York, in Arizona, Ohio, Illinois, Connecticut, and Florida, I became accustomed to the linguistic customs of people outside of New York.  Memories of profanity faded over the years.  In 1990, I returned to New York, with my “clean” vocabulary, and found people were not taking me seriously.  After a while, profanity began to creep back into my usage, and I was shocked to discover that people now took me seriously.  Speaking my native tongue made me a more effective communicator.

A problem arose when I would speak with people outside of the New York Metropolitan area.  I could see them cringe when I spoke in the New York vernacular.  The language was too strong for some of them.  I toned down my language by using secondary “bad words” instead of the powerful ones and that helped a bit, but they were still uncomfortable.  After living for more than a decade in New York City, I decided to retain my native speech, but use it moderately.  It made my language colorful, but no one got hurt.

The issue raised by self-righteous detractors, is that my speech is not clean, and therefore, anything I have to say is tainted.  When I consider this, I come to a completely different conclusion for several reasons.  First, the Apostle Paul, in one of his epistles uses profanity that would make a New Yorker feel at home.   You can’t really find it in an English translation, but it’s in the Greek Text.  If the Apostle’s words are not tainted, I must conclude mine are not either.

Secondly, my words have no real victims.  No one is genuinely hurt by them.  When people who don’t use profanity speak badly of others, talk behind their backs, spread lies and rumors, and call someone else’s reputation into question, they are committing Lashon Horah, the sin of speaking evil of others and they are doing real harm.  They may not use profanity, but they have committed character assassination, and damaged another person’s reputation.  Why is it that we condemn the profanity of language that harms no one, yet say nothing of the real profanity that hurts others?  I am sick and tired of people who think they are righteous because they use “nice” language but behave badly to others.  They are only fooling themselves.  They are as unclean as open graves.  They think that by condemning foul language they can hide their miserable behavior toward others.

What does the scripture mean when it tells us to be clean?  Words like purity, holiness, and cleanliness come to mind.  The word for clean or pure most often used is Tahor,which means purity.  This is used in Psalm 51 where King David says, “Create in me a clean heart, Oh God, and renew a right spirit within me.”  The scripture is concerned with a clean heart, having clean motives toward others.  The Scripture is not so concerned about “cosmetic” cleanliness as much as cleanliness of life; our actions and attitudes toward others.  This is a truth that ever New Yorker understands.  No one is fazed by obscene language, but they understand kindness toward others.  This became apparent to the world in the aftermath of 9/11.  New Yorkers have long been legendary for their outer harshness, yet in the crisis, people reached out to one another, even though they were total strangers.  The hearts of New Yorkers were revealed to the world.  It has been my experience that the main difference between New Yorkers and the rest of Americans, is that in the rest of the country, people want to be friendly and smile, but they don’t really want to be your friends.  They won’t go out of their way for you.  New Yorkers tend to be more grumpy on the exterior, but the friendships and genuine and more lasting.  I’ve known many New Yorkers who would walk two blocks out of their way to help a stranger find their destination.  In my mind the real profanity is smiling at people while speaking badly behind their backs.

If someone objects to my language, speaking in my native tongue, “that’s too damn bad.”  To put it in a way the rest of you can understand, sorry, no offense intended.

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