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How Words Create Worlds

My sermon this week on Parashat Bereshit

The Creation Story found in the Hebrew Bible is a revolutionary one.

There are many reasons we might say this: The biblical creation story puts forth the image of ONE all-knowing, all-powerful deity, who existed before creation and will continue to exist even if the world should come to an end. This God is neither born nor gives birth, has no companion or servants, and creates the world from nothing.

But perhaps the most revolutionary thing is HOW God creates the world. This world is neither sculpted nor secreted. It is not the result of a cosmic battle between warrior deities. This world is created…with words.

“When God began to create heaven and earth….God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness God called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, a first day” (Gen. 1:1-5).

This stands in sharp contrast to Israel’s neighbors in Babylonia, who believed that the god Marduk fashioned the earth and sky from the two halves of the slain goddess Tiamat:

“… He divided her like a shell-fish into two parts: / He threw one half to the heavens and called it the sky…/ he formed the firmament below.”[i]

In contrast, the biblical creation story portrays a peaceful ordering of the primordial chaos by one omnipotent God, who creates through speaking.

This speaks not only to the power of God, but to the power of language, as one commentary says: “God creates the world with words. This is the first invocation of the Torah’s belief in the reality of words, their power to create and to destroy.”[ii]

Last week, as we prepared to begin this cycle of Torah readings anew, and as we listened to the Senate Judiciary hearings, I did a lot of thinking about how the words we use shape the world we live in.

You don’t have to be in a Senate hearing to know that we use different language for boys and for girls—for awhile, all you had to do is walk through a children’s clothing store. You’d find pink shirts that said, “Pretty Like Mommy,” and blue shirts that said, “Smart Like Daddy.”[iii] Girls’ clothes tended to be emblazoned with sparkly pastel messages about cuteness and sweetness, whereas boys’ clothes touted brains and brawn in bold primary colors.

This, thankfully, is changing. There are now girls’ t-shirts at Target that say, “Future Coder,” “Problem Solver,” and “Girls Never Give Up,” though they are still overwhelmingly pink, sparkly, and covered in unicorns. This came about because parents demanded it and the market responded. And while it may have seemed petty at the time, parents demanded it because they saw how gendered language made an impact on who our children grow up to be.

As I heard Dr. Ford’s testimony, I noticed how deferential and polite she was throughout the hearing. She said things like, “I’m used to being collegial.” She apologized frequently. She referred to an encounter with one of her attackers where she politely said hello to him in the grocery store. I thought of all the words we say, to girls and to women, that shaped the woman who sat in that chair:

Be nice.

Be a good girl.

Don’t be unladylike.

When he teases you, it means he likes you.

Don’t take it personally.

Take it as a compliment.

He was only joking.

Don’t make such a big deal out of everything.

Don’t be so emotional.

You’re being hysterical.

Just as problematic is the language we use with boys and men, language that informs them that they are the ones in charge, and that they are, more or less, entitled and encouraged to go after what they want, and to take it for themselves:

Be a man.

Man up.

Boys don’t cry.

Don’t be a sissy.

Even the prevalent use of sports metaphors for intimacy encourages young people to view sex as a conquest, something that can be won or lost, earned or taken away, rather than something to be freely given, lovingly shared, and mutually enjoyed.

When these attitudes are taken to the extremes of harassment and assault, we often use language that places the blame squarely on the shoulders of the victims:

What were you wearing?

How much did you have to drink?

Did you lead them on?

Why did you go home with them?

Why didn’t you leave?

Why didn’t you say something earlier?

No one will believe you.

Don’t ruin their life over this.

It wasn’t that bad.

In fact, a new anthology about this subject is titled, Not that Bad, because it is filled with stories of people who convinced themselves that their pain wasn’t enough to warrant the pursuit of justice.

When we try to hold men accountable for their actions, we are often met with language that minimizes or erases their bad behavior:

Boys will be boys.

They were just horsing around.

It was a youthful indiscretion.

He couldn’t help himself.

He’s a good man.

He’s a good father.

He loves his [mother/daughter/sister/wife]. He would never do such a thing.

He was this kind of boy. He never would have gone after that type of girl.

The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence points out that we often talk about violence against women in the passive voice, making harassment, abuse, and assault sound like something that happens to women, rather than something that is perpetrated by men. When a man attacks a woman, we need to say that a man attacked a woman, not that a woman “was attacked.”[iv]

I am aware that I am using an outdated gender binary here. I know that there are women who harass people and commit assault. I know there are men who are the victims of such behavior. I know not everyone fits neatly into one of these two categories. But as long as our society continues to use this binary, to empower one gender and diminish another, we cannot pretend the binary doesn’t exist, or that we are not subject to it, or responsible for it.

As a young woman, I often received emails from well-meaning aunties, encouraging me to follow ten tips to avoid assault, from not walking alone at night, to not wearing my hair in a ponytail so I couldn’t be grabbed from behind. Someone finally turned this list on its head, saying that perhaps we should focus on how we prevent men from attacking women, and on holding them accountable when they do.

Regardless of our viewpoint on the nominee or the allegations, we should all be alarmed to hear the language used to defend Kavanaugh and discredit Ford. This language hurts people. It creates a world where men are empowered to hurt women, and where women are encouraged to stay silent.

Last Friday night, worn out and angry from the week’s events, I was brought to tears watching our student choir, mostly young girls, standing proudly in front of the congregation, unselfconscious and unafraid. I often struggle with how to make an impact on our dismal political reality. How many times a week do I need to call my senators, attend a protest, or write an opinion piece?

I realized, last Friday, that my primary responsibility is to teach our children to be strong, kind, and wise, and to empower the rest of us to create a better world for them to live in. And I truly believe that that starts with the language that we use.

It might be as simple as not using gendered language: replacing “you guys,” “boys and girls,” or “ladies and gentlemen,” with “friends,” “everybody,” or “y’all.” We might take note of when, and with whom, we use words like “nice,” “sweet,” “smart,” “strong,” and “pretty,” and whether we comment more on people’s outfits than we do on their actions.

We might also ensure that our children always have a choice about whether they want to be touched. I ask our b’nai mitzvah: Do you want a hug or a handshake? I try to give children a safe space if they don’t want to link arms, hold hands, or have me put my hands on them when I bless them. Even when I spend time with my friends’ children, if they ask me to stop tickling them, I make sure to say, “You said stop, so I’m stopping.”

And as our children grow older, we need to equip them with language to maintain their autonomy and their boundaries, such as:

You can’t talk to me like that.

You can’t touch me like that.

You can’t treat me like that.

I’m leaving now.

You have to leave now.

We need to teach our children to say these words, without shaking, without apology, without fear. We also need to teach our children to hear and respect these words when they are spoken by others. We need to develop the right language with which to respond when someone hurts the people we care about, such as these words from my colleague, Rabbi Paul Kipnes:

“I believe you. It took a lot of courage to tell me about this.”

“It’s not your fault. You didn’t do anything to deserve this.”

“You are not alone. I care about you and am here to listen or help in any way I can.”

“I’m sorry this happened. This shouldn’t have happened to you.”

From the very beginning of Genesis, we are taught that, male or female, we are created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God. Male or female, we have inherent worth. Male or female, we are called to be partners with God. Male or female, we have the potential to be Godlike.

And so we must never forget that, like God, the words we speak have the power to create the world we live in.

And we must never forget that our children are listening.