Turning Curses to Blessings: On the Power of Words


In the Hebrew Bible, words are events. G-d creates the world through a series of speech-acts, starring with “Let there be light.” As events, once words are spoken, they cannot be taken back; they have happened. Words have independent power. There are many blessings and curses, invoking the name of G-d, and they affect the real world and change history. Once spoken, they are part of reality.

There is a remarkable story about the power of words in the Book of Numbers 22-24. The Israelites have escaped from centuries of oppression in Egypt. Now they want to return to their homeland. A foreign king, Balak of Moab, hires a prophet/seer, Bilaam, to go up on a mountain and curse the Israelites. Once cursed with these words, the Israelites will be vulnerable to attack. This is how powerful words are taken to be. G-d, however, has other ideas, and when Bilaam tries to curse the Israelites, G-d makes blessings come out of his mouth. Curses are transformed into blessings.

All this sounds quaint at best to our modern ears, right? For us, words are merely words. Therefore, all speech should be free.

In a controversy that is raging right now in the United States, very distinguished university presidents have stated that even the most hateful speech is acceptable unless it leads to violence.  Otherwise, even calling for the death of other groups of people is acceptable discourse if taken ‘in context’. Words are just words.

Or are they? Of course not. The Bible is right; words are events and are part of reality. Once spoken, they cannot be taken back. Not only do words have their own violence, and their own power, but we know there is a short continuum from violent words to physical violence. Hateful speech is not free. It could not be more expensive. It destroys peace.

By the way, why should we even be having this discussion? Why are people so consumed with hate for other groups that we must figure out where the lines are? And why, of all places, are universities the scene of such hatred? Isn’t the whole idea of diversity on campus that different people should learn not only from books but from each other? Aren’t universities supposed to be institutions focused on generating knowledge and scholarship? Aren’t universities supposed to educate students to become critical thinkers who could make up their own minds on issues of the day? I should not generalize. Many universities still do these things. But others have made the university itself as a tool to achieve one line of “progressive” political goals. No one has really challenged this because if they try, they run into a stone wall. Academic institutions, especially in many prominent places, have become self-governing, self-interested monocultures, factories for one faction of ideologues. Rather than really embrace free speech, they reward what they have decided are “politically correct” viewpoints and punish what they have decided are the wrong ones. For their selected causes, there is no limit on permitted conduct. They do not seem to see hate crime, physical violence, and the destruction of property when the protests are seen as virtuous.

Why is free speech being used for curses? The real job of the university or any school is to teach its students about the power of words, so that words will once again be blessings for everyone.