The recent release of Donald Trump’s infamous 2005 tape last week has been revealing, not only for the candidate himself, but for American society as a whole. Not surprisingly, the video was met with nearly universal disgust, for both the sentiment Mr. Trump expressed and the language he used. As an onlooker, this video seems to represent a line drawn in the sand. In a society where so much is tolerated and excused, Americans’ response to this video attests to a widespread consensus that certain language and some messages are still considered beyond the pale. Viewed in this broader context, this incident raises interesting questions and highlights fundamental differences between the American idea of foul language and the Torah concept of nivul peh.
About one year ago, the Wall Street Journal published an article entitled, “The Evolution of Profanity.” In this article, the author made the case that despite Americans today feeling much freer when it comes to profanity, there are still some words that remain taboo. Indeed, there have always been taboo words – it’s just that the list of words we choose to tolerate versus those we deem to be out of bounds has evolved over time. In Medieval English, for example, the chief category of profanity was swearing in the name of God or Jesus. Saying, “My God” was considered profane because it was a violation of the third commandment of not taking God’s Name lightly. By the late 18th century, certain sexual and bathroom-related words became considered “swearing” and even into the beginning of the 20th century, though common four letter obscenities were in widespread use, there was a reigning sense that one kept “bad words” out of polite society. However, things have changed now. There are no real taboos to four letter obscenities. In fact, there was a ruling last year that police officers in New York City may curse in their normal daily procedures and activities. What was until relatively recently considered profanity is now becoming more and more prevalent in the American workplace.
That being said, some standards of profanity do remain. Taboos tend to be those things that we fear, or with which we are uncomfortable. Though this category of speech still exists in modern day, it is not surprising that the particulars have changed. In an era wherein it was understood that all decent society feared the wrath of God, it was unacceptable to swear in His name. In a time when polite society was largely uncomfortable with topics of sexuality, sexually charged speech was the taboo of the day. Today, defamation of groups is taboo, especially when the groups in question are those that have historically suffered discrimination or worse.
When confronted with the response to his remarks, Mr. Trump tried to argue to the American public that his talk was “locker room talk.” If in fact his speech was taboo because of its sexual nature, as it might have been in the beginning of the 20th century, Mr. Trump argued that it would be acceptable in a place where such talk is common, such as a locker room. Some supporters have noted that “we’re not voting on the Pope; we’re voting on the president,” a sentiment that I do believe is the mentality of most Americans. I don’t believe that most Americans are voting for a role model. I believe that the debate surrounding this tape is not about whether he is a good, ethical man, but whether the tape demonstrates that he will likely be demeaning towards women or other groups should he be elected president. The reason for this is that for American society in 2016, nivul peh is not a determination of character, but it is about language that could potentially cause harm to others.
For the Torah Jew, avoiding nivul peh means more than simply refraining from speech that can harm others. In Parshat Kedoshim, the Ramban explains that using foul language is a violation of kedoshim tihyu – of being holy. The Ramban understands that the prohibition of foul language is derived from the obligation to be holy and that one who uses foul language is defined as a naval birshut haTorah, as someone who may follow the letter of the law but not the spirit of the Torah. As such, using foul language is not about committing a specific sin, but it is indicative of one’s personality. Part of being kadosh is having a peh kadosh. According to the Targum, the gift of speech was uniquely given to men and not to animals. Proper speech can make us holy, but misusing this gift reduces us to the level of animals, or worse - it will make me a naval, which is connected to the word nevelah, or a dead carcass.
Perhaps the challenge for the modern day halakhic Jew is how to precisely define what is nivul peh, what is this foul language that we should avoid. The Gemara in Shabbat 33a seems to define nivul peh as sexual talk. However the Gemara in Pesachim 2a seems to go a step further. Citing our Sages who praise someone who uses lashon neikya, or clean language, the Gemara is Pesachim seems to dictate a greater level of prudence than simply refraining from overtly sexual talk. To some extent, I believe that precise definitions of nivul peh and lashon neikya may depend on culture and context. But, for me at least, what guides me in this area are my role models known for their midot tovot, for their wonderful character traits. In determining my own parameters for appropriate speech, I look not to the larger society around me, but instead I think of my role models. What would I feel comfortable saying in front of them? Surely, present day 21st century moral standards would not suffice. And so I set my own bar higher, keeping in mind that I would want to feel holy in their eyes.
As we emerge from Yom Kippur having made commitments to change, and as we attempt to put them into practice during the holiday of Sukkot, this is a message that remains present in my mind. Through both our midot and our speech, let us not only do better, but let us strive to be better. May our language this year bring us closer to this goal and may all of us attain the gold standard of kedoshim tihyu.