Clean Speech initiative shows the power of positivity


Rabbi Yosef David (left) and Nissim Black.

By Daniel Shanker Sophomore, Yeshivat Kadimah High School

“The Torah and the Talmud teach us that hurtful speech is worse than cheating someone out of money,” said Rabbi Yosef David, executive director of Aish HaTorah of St. Louis. “If you cheat somebody financially, you can pay it back, but if you cheat somebody by hurting them with words—you might not be able to pay that back so easily.”

David and Aish HaToraH spearhaded  Clean Speech St. Louis, a 30-day initiative during March that inspires people to speak positively and encourages people to refrain from hurtful language.

“The first year’s [curriculum] was the laws of slander and gossip, lashon hara and rechilus,” said David. “[This] year’s [focus] is onas devarim, which is negative words or messages that hurt other people face-to-face.”

This negativity has drastic consequences.

“It came to a point where families couldn’t sit together at the same Thanksgiving table or Pesach seder because this one’s a liberal and that one’s a conservative, this one’s a Democrat and that one’s a Republican,” David said.

Negativity often surrounds modern culture. Social media invites people to complain to anyone who will listen. News compiles all the world’s problems into one easily digestible paper—how convenient!

“We’ve got to do something about [the negativity],” David said. “And not only that, but Judaism has answers to this. It has ideals that relate to the way we speak. It informs and inspires the world about the values of proper speech.”

The value, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” guides a Jewish lifestyle and is at the heart of Clean Speech. 

“We should never do something that we wouldn’t want done to us, and therefore any speech, negativity, gossip or slander that we wouldn’t want to [experience], we should never do to somebody else,” David said.

Often, the world justifies slander with, “But it’s true.” 

“We say it doesn’t make a difference if it’s true—it still hurts, and if it’s for no purpose, it’s destructive,” David said.

To push positive messages and encourage positive communication, Clean Speech sent out two-minute videos throughout March—which are currently available on YouTube—with a short message and a daily exercise. It also has a handbook containing 30 lessons.

The final—and most anticipated—event was an interview and concert with Hassidic rapper Nissim Black.

“[Nissim Black] is somebody who’s just a great spokesperson for Clean Speech,” David said. “[He can] speak about his experiences with negative speech—people judging him by his religion, color or dress, and it was extremely powerful.

“His journey from the negativity and the hurt of the gangster rap culture to what he does today, using his words to lift people up and inspire others, is a tremendous lesson and very inspiring for everybody who hears him.”

Clean Speech is special in that it serves every Jew, regardless of affiliation or observance level.

“One of the most remarkable achievements and benefits of this program is that it’s a unifier,” David said. “It crosses all boundaries and [enables] all people, no matter where they are in their Jewish journey.”

Speech is a great power, and it comes with great responsibility.

“Judaism is very clear that one of the greatest powers of the human being is our ability to communicate with speech,” David said. “When we understand the power of speech, and we understand how powerful we are, we’re going to treat it much more carefully.”