by David Ellenson
Jewish tradition holds language to be both powerful and holy. Judaism identifies speech -- the word -- as the agent of creation. The Psalmist, in words included in the daily liturgy of the Jewish prayer book, proclaims, "Blessed is the one who spoke, and the world came to be." Words are also the means of revelation. God speaks to Israel at Sinai, and The Ten Commandments are referred to in rabbinic tradition as Asseret ha- Dibberot -- The Ten Words. Indeed, words are so precious that Genesis asserts that the uniqueness and elevation of the human species reside in the gift of language with which God distinguished humanity from all other forms of life. The vocabulary of the medieval Jewish philosophical tradition recognizes these sacred roles assigned to language and speech in Judaism by identifying the human being as ha-Medabber -- he who speaks. Through speech, all of us offer that which is ours alone to the Other. Speech affirms the existence of the self. At the same time, speech seeks a response from the Other. Words provide the basis for community, for they permit and allow for dialogue among people.
When a community accords an individual or group the privilege of public speech, it is a mark that the community has conferred equal status upon such persons. Conversely, when a community silences or excludes an individual or a group, when it views them as beings who are neither qualified nor capable of addressing the Other, then that community diminishes their humanity. Words, in the end, possess the power of conferring personhood. The ability to speak -- to address Others and to be addressed -- is that which signifies that we are fully human. Language and speech are primordially ethical.
Engendering Judaism is based upon these observations concerning the power of silence and speech. In these pages, Rachel Adler argues that Judaism must be conceptualized as an extended conversation, one in which the lips of participants long since dead move and inform the present. Many of these voices are recorded in classical texts like the Bible and Talmud, and they form a core element in the ground of Jewish religious tradition. As a Jewish theologian, Adler does not exclude these voices from the Jewish conversation. To do so, in her opinion, would be to dis