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The Jewish Ethicist: Watch Your Mouth

The Jewish Ethicist: Watch Your Mouth

Clean speech is good for your character and your workplace.


Q. I learned that an employee used very coarse and racist language during a meeting. Is it appropriate to fire him?

A. Certainly filthy language is condemned by Jewish tradition. The Talmud states:

    Due to the transgression of obscene language come many afflictions, and adverse decrees arise . . . as it is written (Isaiah 9:17), "The Lord will not rejoice in the young men, and will not show mercy to His orphans and widows, for all is immodesty and wickedness, and every mouth speaks profanities." . . . Rabba bar Shila said in the name of Rav Chisda, Anyone who speaks profanities, they deepen Gehinnom for him, as it is written (Proverbs 22:14), "[As] a deep pit is the mouth of the strange woman." Rav Nachman bar Yitzchak said, Even one who hears and remains silent, as it is written (Proverbs 22:14) "Who has incurred the wrath of the Lord will fall there."(1)

Likewise, in any number of places our sages warn against the use of any kind of offensive speech. In fact, the Talmud says that offensive language is a violation of the Torah prohibition "Don't oppress each man his fellow"(Leviticus 25:17). (2)

Our sages also warn us that the sensitivity is very great if one denigrates a member of a particular nationality or racial group; the Talmud admonishes us, "[Even] after ten generations, don't deride an Aramean in front of a proselyte." (3)

Obviously this is not the kind of conduct you would like to be representing your firm and your product.

But it would be jumping to conclusions to think that you should abruptly fire this person. Judaism believes unambiguously in the power of people to change. Our sages say that "repentance preceded the creation of the world," (4) meaning that the ability to grow and improve is the basis of human existence.

Specifically in the area of worker relations, Jewish law instructs us that it is generally wrong to fire a person for an isolated mistake without giving the employee a warning and chance to learn from his mistake. The exception would be where a person is aware that a misstep is likely to lead to an irreversible loss.

    Rava said, a Torah instructor, a planter, a slaughterer and a blood-letter and a town scribe are all considered forewarned. (5)

The commentators explain that these professions are known to be characterized by a small margin for serious error, but in other occupations warning and instruction should be given.

Based on your description, it would seem that the best response would be to ask the employee to apologize to those he met with for his offensive conduct, and to explain to him that in the future obscene and particularly racist statements will meet with more severe sanctions. You should also learn your lesson and not leave this issue to chance. Your workplace should take this opportunity to spell out to employees in a transparent way what kind of conduct is expected of them at work, and what sanctions face them if they don't comply.

SOURCES: (1) Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 33a (2) Babylonian TalmudBava Metzia 58b (3) Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 94a (4) Midrash Tehillim 90 (5) Babylonian Talmud Bava Metzia 109b

March 6, 2010

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Visitor Comments: 6

(6) Esther, March 10, 2010 6:20 PM

Rahm Emanuel

I was proud when a Jew was elevated to the Oval Office but it has always bothered me that White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel has a reputation for having a potty mouth, speaking with profanity and sometimes as a bully. It doesn't reflect well on his Jewishness.

(5) Anonymous, March 10, 2010 4:45 PM

Curse words.

I realized that when a person cusses, uses curse words, it's because they are cursed. I stay away from them. It gives me an instant insight into their very souls and lives.

(4) ASHVIN KHAMBHATA, March 10, 2010 3:10 AM

It is vert touchy

Our conduct is a reflection of our character .This article touches my heart.It is very imressive

(3) SusanE, March 10, 2010 12:42 AM

Not Enough Information

The writer said that he 'learned' that there was abusive words used at a meeting that were racist and coarse. That is hearsay, and borders on gossip. Unless you heard it yourself, you should not accuse the employee. From the way the question is worded, there isn't enough firsthand information to take action against the employee. Certainly not enough to cause his being fired. If anything should be done about this, the employee should be seen in private by you and told what was being said about him. Give him the benefit of the doubt.

(2) Ellen, March 10, 2010 12:35 AM

Co-worker speaks inappropriately

For the first time, I am sharing an office with someone who is very observant. She is punctilious about Shabbat, kashrut, etc. But she gossips all day long and uses 4-letter words! I haven't said anything to her. But it has been a surprise to me that someone so careful about ritual would be so careless in speech.

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