When I got on the bus to go home from the Women’s March on Washington, I vented briefly about my physical condition on Facebook: “My knees would like me to eff off and die.” The next day, a Facebook friend posted, rather disingenuously, “What do you mean by eff off?” I ignored the question, figuring she knew perfectly well what I meant, and the next day she made it clear that she expected me, as a rabbi, to hold myself to a higher standard of conduct regarding language than other people.
This was mildly annoying, for a couple of reasons:
• I had posted the comment about my knees on my general FB page (and by the way, ten years ago I would have spelled out the f-word), but the FB friend responded on my professional page, which I reserve for rabbi-related stuff.
• Her response was typical of Jews who want their rabbis to do all the Jewish things they don’t want to do and model all the fine behavior, at all times, that they don’t want to bother exhibiting themselves.
The fact is, as a lot of people do, I use salty language sometimes. I’ve been cussing since I was 14, and while I try to limit my use of cuss words to the privacy of my own home and the company of my spouse, I find them useful sometimes in conveying strong feeling or underscoring a point in conversation. The word “salty” in context of language probably derives from sailors’ reputation for cursing, but I think of cuss words more as spice: used sparingly, they add flavor to self-expression, though it’s important not to overpower one’s speech with them.
Don’t forget that the language associated with Jewish prayer, Hebrew, has its share of rudeness. For example, the Hebrew word for “female,” n’keivah, shares its root with the Hebrew word for “hole.” And the language associated with European Jewry, Yiddish, can win most contests for spicy vocabulary, to the extent that it sometimes gets sanitized in translation out of politeness. The word bupkes, used to mean “nothing of worth” or “almost nothing of worth,” literally means “goat poop.” Similarly, I don’t ever refer to an elderly man as an alter kocker, because kock comes from the same place ca-ca does, and I think it’s impolite to call someone an “old shitter.” Yiddish has lots of ways to call someone a fool, and several of them invoke body parts generally kept hidden.
Of course we expect clergy to stay away from acts that hurt or embarrass people and/or institutions, which include everything from hiring a hit man to murder your spouse because you’re infatuated with a congregant to showing up to give a civic invocation on behalf of your congregation dressed in a torn T-shirt and flip-flops. Nor would I use salty language during an invocation, on the bimah, during a lifecycle event, or in front of children. But I feel I have the prerogative to go off-color occasionally on the Facebook page I use to recommend movies, rail about spineless members of Congress, and post cute doggie pix. And I reserve the very occasional right, when teaching adults, to refer to a biblical character as a douchebag when the word “douchebag” describes him best. Of course I could call the same character an arrogant putz, but that would be even ruder.
When someone jumps my case for using profanity in a casual, colloquial context, that person certainly has the right not to like it, but she needs to understand that she’s denying a bit of my essential humanity and self-expression. (And please don’t haul out the old saw about how people who use cuss words don’t know the proper words; I’ll match my working vocabulary with anyone else’s, any time.) According to Torah, God wants all of us to be holy and doesn’t list extra requirements of conduct for the biblical priests. Maybe that’s why, at least in theory, Judaism expects its clergy to be human beings and live like other human beings: to be more learned, maybe, but not necessarily more holy. Actually, I think that’s pretty effing cool.