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Importance of being inclusive

View from the Pulpit

November 24, 2016 23:20

When the dust of the current worldwide political turmoil eventually settles, one of the many lessons to be learnt will unquestionably be that of the power of language.

Think of the fall-out from derogatory statements made by a certain American presidential candidate about Mexicans. Or the outrage at the passing reference to Israel in the context of "self-styled Islamic states" from the mouth of the current Labour leader.

Choice of language matters in politics, and nowhere more so than when a particular use of language is perceived as excluding, or passing judgment on others.

As a rabbi, I often think about the power of language. Jewish tradition places immense weight on sensitivity of speech. No less than 12 of the 44 lines of the Al Chet confessional prayer recited on Yom Kippur refer to sins relating to misuse of words. But, equally, I have all too often seen the pain of those who have felt excluded from the Jewish community due to ill-conceived use of speech. Words have real power and it is up to us to choose them carefully and use them wisely. The truth of this was brought home to me recently during a workshop with Keshet UK (a national organisation that advocates for LGBTQ inclusion in Jewish life) that I participated in with several other Orthodox rabbis.

Not knowing what to expect, I was deeply moved by the sensitivity displayed by the representatives of Keshet UK to the Torah's perspective on same-sex relationships. They made it clear that they weren't there to discuss halachah with us, only to discuss people's experiences and the impact and importance of language. To that end, they provided us with a simplified fact-sheet, outlining terminology currently in use within the LGBTQ community, together with a guide as to the most appropriate terms to use in any given circumstance. They explained how people may prefer to be addressed and what terminology is best avoided.

Language can lead to death but it can also save life

Following the horrific attack on LGBT people in Orlando last month, and the murder of teenager Shira Banki at the Jerusalem march a year ago, there was immediate and unequivocal condemnation of the hatred which could have caused these crazed individuals to commit such unspeakable acts. The Torah and Jewish law clearly and unambiguously prohibit homosexual intimacy. But the Torah also forbids homophobia.

No one should ever face dislike or prejudice within the Jewish community because of their sexuality. It is therefore particularly awful when the perceived "grounds" for such prejudice are somehow blamed on the Torah.

The language guide given to us by Keshet UK may seem insignificant in the grand scale of things. But it taught me that one practical way of taking the critical steps needed in order to prevent the spread of homophobic attitudes is through the careful and sensitive use of inclusive language.

There are forms of speech which, however unintended, drive people away. And, equally, there are forms of speech which are non-judgmental, draw people in and demonstrate a real desire to reach out to all members of the Jewish community, without exception.

Most importantly, this is a practical, positive step that is available to all. I cannot, as an Orthodox rabbi, actively celebrate a same-sex relationship, any more than I can celebrate any other act prohibited by the Torah. Neither can I officiate at a same-sex wedding. But I can choose to use language that leaves the door open to all to join in the life of the community.

I can choose to use language that does a little bit more to show an LGBTQ person that I care about them as much as any other member of the community. And I can choose to use non-judgmental, inclusive language which distances itself in every possible way from the homophobic language of exclusion, which can, God forbid, lead to psychological harm, suicide or even murder.

In the world we live in, our choice of language really does matter, perhaps more so than ever before. It has the power to do far more damage than simply destroy a political career.

But it can also have the power to save and reinvigorate life. And it is that critical choice of using inclusive, rather than exclusive, language which is truly available to us all.

November 24, 2016 23:20

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