Monday, June 29, 2009

It’s just the way people talk, right?

I attended a safety course the other day, and the instructor made reference to a razor, gesturing to one of the women present and saying something along the lines of, “You know, like one of the little pink disposable razors she uses.”

I found the line jarring - not because there was anything illicit implied or intended, but because, by its very nature, that sort of thing seems to be me to be private. Yes, everyone knows that women use these, and it’s normal for public conversation in an age when far more intimate things are discussed on network television – both entertainment and news - and in children’s films… but, still, I found it uncomfortable to have someone make public reference to them.

It’s not about any pornographic innuendo; I’ll give you a different case to illustrate what I mean.

A few years back I served as mashgiach for a catered event. At one point during the kitchen preparation, the head of the operation left for an errand. Immediately after his car pulled out of the lot, two things happened: One, the employees stopped most of their work. And second, they started talking about him in ways that just struck me as nasty. They weren’t complaining about any particular behavior or event, they were just making fun of him.

It is, of course, the way people talk. But I find it repellent.

Many of my formative social years were spent in a beit midrash atmosphere where that kind of talk, whether prurient or derogatory, is frowned upon, and that shaped my sensitivities for life.

I’m not claiming purity for the beit midrash environment; I am quite aware that not everyone who learns is clean of mouth. I knew people then, and I know people today, who wear the mantle of Torah but still speak negatively about others, or tell off-color jokes.

But in my time in Yeshivat Kerem b’Yavneh and Yeshiva University I was fortunate to be surrounded by friends who were, for the most part, careful with their speech. If you spoke inappropriately, their expression – a look at the floor, a grimace – told you so. And so our society enforced the idea of guarding our speech, and lines like that one about the razor, or speech behind someone’s back, still gives me a shudder.

I never was particularly protected from the world around me, and I certainly am not sheltered today. I have, to a certain extent, become de-sensitized to a lot of things. But that has not changed.

I hope I am not coming across as sanctimonious or self-righteous – that is not my intent, and I am in no position of righteousness to judge others - but I thank Gd, as well as the friends of my yeshiva days, that I have not lost that shudder.


  1. As the Rosh Yeshiva might have said -- "the earmuffs of Torah"


  2. I think I'm famous for off-color jokes.... :-/
    I mean, I know I shouldn't make them, but they are the funniest kind..

  3. So, if the instructor had said "you know, like the yellow disposables that he uses" and had pointed to a man in the group, would you have felt that it was equally improper? (Men do use them you know.)Would you even have noticed?

    While I'll agree that some language has no place in general discourse, we can carry correctness too far, revealing far more about ourselves than the intent of the language. It's that idea that has made it "impolite" to mention that chicken breasts are on the menu.

    Shouldn't the question have been did the woman pointed out feel uncomfortable? If she did and showed it, then you might have said it was inappropriate because it made her uncomfortable. But if she did not, and the comment was made to her, then why your discomfort?

  4. I agree with you, Rabbi. Speaking of others in a degrading or pejorative way can be much more hurtful than we realize at the time. This is probably my worst trait. I KNOW that I shouldn't make sarcastic or biting comments about people, and yet I do it all the time. It's definitely the hardest thing for me to overcome. Thank you for the reminder.

  5. Jameel-
    Welcome back!

    You can't be famous for them; I had never heard that said about you before.

    I wouldn't have thought it a big deal regarding the man, because a facial shave is less intimate.
    I do agree that we should not go too far, but my sense is that sensitivity to intimacy is a good thing (whether or not the woman involved is personally sensitive).

  6. First of all, most Jewish people would have no idea about "the yellow disposables" in the first place because we use electric shavers!

    I wouldn't have thought it a big deal regarding the man, because a facial shave is less intimate.

    Why do you think a facial shave is "less intimate" than a leg or underarm shave? Because the face is seen and the legs are only half seen, and underarms not seen?


  7. Rabbi -

    Wow, I was sitting next to you and I thought he was making a joke about my long beard, and the shaver I forgot to use!

    I believe the expression usually used is "When the cat is away, the mice will play". And this is a way of life. It could happen at work, I see it from my kids, it happens in school, and to a lesser extent, it even happens in yeshiva.

    I remember sometimes in Yeshiva when our Rebbe would leave the room, the talk from some chavrusahs going on would switch from Hillel to whatever the baseball or basketball scores were. Is that notthe same thing to an extent?

    I even see it in my kids - and who knows where they learnt it from (probably me), but when parents leave the room, the attitude of the child changes, they feel they can be more loose.

    I'm sure there is a pyscological term for it - but I think we all have a little bit of "mice" in us.

    - your chaver

  8. Mark-
    Yes, because the skin shaved with a leg razor includes skin identified halachically as ervah.

    It's all a matter of which friends/children you have...

  9. Rabbi -

    Are you trying to tell me that it's ONLY my kids??

  10. Great post once again, Rabbi! If you don't mind, I will share it on our site.

    Rabbi Manis Friedman has a nice book about tzniut call Doesn't Anybody Blush Anymore? The title already tells you that he is thinking along similar terms. Retaining such sensitivities really does internally promote a sensitivity to all that is holy.

  11. were you at KBY while R' Goldvicht was still RY? I'm from machzor Y2KBY. R' Silver told us R' Goldvicht once gave a sicha about "Pilegesh B'giva" after finding out a guy had a girlfriend at Givat Washington.

  12. TheTalmid-
    Yes, I was Gulf War (I) and the year after. There's no one like the Rosh Yeshivah.

  13. Give the instructor the benefit of the doubt. Maybe the woman is naturally facially hirsute, and uses her little pink razor above the neck.