middot silence daily living to speak or not to speak

to speak or not to speak

Written by  rabbi paul saal

art-speakupSeveral years ago I had the opportunity to attend one of the last public appearances of one of the most renowned philosophers of the last half of the 20th century.  At the outset there must have been 3000 academics, philosophers and theologians who assembled in the auditorium in Toronto to hear the famous man.

I don’t know anyone else’s motivation for attending, but privately I hoped to get a better understanding of his highly regarded ideas, since I confess to have never fully grasped them in writing. Alas clarity never came. The moderator asked the first question and forty-five minutes later the elder scholar concluded his answer to a half empty room. Never had I so totally embraced the aphorism, “silence is golden.”


But is proverbial wisdom really unequivocally true?  Certainly Scripture has much to say about the power and potential danger of speech. Yakov the elder of Jerusalem compares the tongue to a flame; though small it has the capacity to cause enormous destruction. But he also states a more ambivalent valuation of the tongue comparing it to the rudder of a ship, having the ability to guide the entire ship.  In this sense speech is seen as having very positive attributes, but as needing to be carefully guarded and thoughtfully employed.  The book of Proverbs refers to human speech as both a “wellspring of truth” and the “folly of fools.” So which is it and how might we know when to speak and when to remain silent?

Knowing not only when to speak but how to speak is a lifetime process, but there are some guiding principles. Proverbs 31:8-9 offers a helpful perspective:

Speak up for those who can't speak for themselves.  
Speak up for the rights of all those who are poor.  
Speak up and judge fairly.  
Speak up for the rights of those who are poor and needy.

Too often we speak for the sake of self-defense, or self-aggrandizement, or self-gratification. The operative evil here is self. The author of Proverbs is at the very least recommending that we best avoid folly if we use our speech to protect those who cannot speak for themselves; the helpless, the homeless, the needy and the weak. Too often today people associate religious zealotry with the politics of protection, self-protection! Protecting “life as we know it.” But the divine “suggestion” is to speak up for others since God has our back. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel refers to this as the prophetic voice, one that is filled with the sympathies of our Creator.

The unique feature of religious sympathy is not self-conquest but self-dedication; not the suppression of emotion but its redirection; not silent subordination, but active co-operation with God; not love which aspires to the Being of God in Himself, but harmony of the soul with the concern of God. To be a prophet means to identify one’s concern with the concern of God.

Sometimes silence is just not an option when the cares of God well up in our souls. The prophetic voice can be a destructive force indeed, tearing down the strongholds of tyranny and provoking the Ruach of hope. In the words of Robert Kennedy,

It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and injustice.

Sometimes silence is not an option, but save your voice, you never know when God and the world will be depending on you.

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