Shmirat haloshon - Positive Reinforcement

This post is dedicated in merit that Hershel ben Etya Sarah have a yeshuah.

Elisheva Maline

"In the beginning, G-d created heaven and earth... For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountain; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries." Quote taken from Lawrence Kelemen's Permission to Receive -- Robert Jastrow, "Have astronomers found G-d?" New York Times Magazine, 25 June 1978, 29.

This statement often serves as the paradigm for those who think they've uncovered the secret to life's mysteries; only too quickly do they discover that the theologians had been playing the winning hand all along. Ah, the winding, centuries long, not to mention pointless, hike... so disappointing. Yet, if sifting through scientific fact, anthropological theory etc. helped one come to an open admiration of G-d's plan and purpose, then the climb may have been called worthwhile.

With regards to recent findings, the last fifty years has been experiencing a drawn out metamorphosis on the subject of behavior analysis. Yes, at last, the modern thinker has penned an official discrepancy between positive and negative reinforcement. How does the difference manifest? If a "teacher" wants her "student" to adopt a specific behavior (e.g. getting one's daughter to call her grandmother more than once a month), positive reformation dictates that the teacher avoid tactical nagging and offer vocal appreciation for whatever the student is doing right instead. 

Well, researchers, give yourselves a hearty pat on the back. Not to be snooty, though, Judaism's been preaching this idea since the Torah was received at Sinai. In the Book of Genesis, G-d commands Noah to bring seven pairs of every tahor (pure) animal (e.g. cows, ewes, goats) as well as one pair of every lo tahor (not pure) animal (e.g. pigs, horses, walruses) in preparation for the Flood. Our Rabbis of blessed memory ask why the Torah, whose language is usually most concise, writes such a clunky term in reference to animals who are called tumai (impure). The answer is given in our Oral Tradition at the beginning of gemaras pesachim. It says that one's ability to speak in an illuminating, insightful manner is contingent on his avoiding improper language (for more on this topic, look up the gemara. Or, better yet, go to yeshiva). This verse in Genesis is the only time the Torah says lo tahor instead of tumai. It's all about positive reinforcement through speech.

In terms of shmirat haloshon (guarding one's tongue from negative speech i.e. gossip) the adage, "Sticks and stones will break my bones but words can never hurt me," has recently been shelved with the idea that one teaching method can fit any student, that labels stunt growth, and that the Abominable Snowman is real. Sticks and stones do indeed break bones; words scar hearts. Based on what we already read, this is not news to the Jews; we've been learning the laws of shmirat haloshon for centuries. Just shy of 100 years ago, the Chofez Chaim, a European sage from Poland, made a compilation of these laws. In his sefer (book), the Chofetz Chaim discusses various means and scenarios by which people can guard their tongues.

These days, people are using the growing popularity of emotional intelligence as a spring board for jumping into the laws of shmirat haloshon. Only too quickly do large percentages realize how saturated daily conversation is with the local gossip. Dissuaded, many turn away muttering, "What! If I work on guarding my tongue from evil speech, why, I'll never talk again," and drop the matter. The Chofetz Chaim scolds these complainers, "Yes, watching your speech is work. Thanks for realizing. You should know, however, that half the battle is seeing what you're up against. Now, you can prepare yourselves. Here's the first step: recognize that there is plenty to talk about... outside of gossiping about people." 

A wise man once said [quote taken from Chicken Soup for the Soul] that great minds discuss ideas, average minds talk about current events and small minds gossip about each other. If you're not ready to drop the latest on who's dating whom or how your neighbor managed to pay her way through college, well, at least focus on the fuller half of the glass. Positive reinforcement isn't exactly shmirat haloshon but it's a start.            

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