THE LIMITS OF SPEECH
Psychotherapy is often referred to as the “talking cure.” The term was coined in the late 19th century by one of the first documented modern psychotherapy patients, known by her alias Anna O. (later revealed to be Bertha Pappenheim), to describe the verbal therapy provided to her by Josef Breuer to treat her “hysteria.” Sigmund Freud later popularized the term, and it came to exemplify psychodynamic therapy. The assumption behind the theory was that present psychological problems can be alleviated when a patient talks about his or her past history, eventually gaining insight into the root causes of the issue. This process can take multiple sessions a week and last for many years until an insight is reached.
Later psychotherapeutic modalities, such as behavioral therapy, challenged the assumptions of these exclusively talking cures, arguing that the insight gained through talking doesn’t necessarily lead to change, and that change happens primarily through action, not through talking. For instance, to change a fear of public speaking, the therapist would primarily help support the patient to overcome the fear by actively progressing towards the act of public speaking. They could leave an analysis of the possible causes of the fear for a later time (if even necessary). Reflecting on these two approaches, Rabbi Dr. Abraham J. Twerski notes that “the traditional approach was based on the theory that insight will change behavior. The contemporary approach, which is much more effective, is to change the pathologic behavior first” (Vision of the Fathers, p. 65). Rabbi Dr. Twerski then notes that the primacy of action over talking is already evident in Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel’s message in Pirkei Avot:
Shimon, his son, used to say: all my days I grew up among the sages, and I have found nothing better for the body than silence; it is not the theory that is of primary importance, but action; and one who talks excessively brings on sin.
All three clauses of the Mishna can be understood as placing limitations on speech. First, having grown up among the sages, Rabbi Shimon has firsthand experience of the benefits of silence. Commentaries differ as to the extent of the benefits. Some focus on the word “body” and assume that silence is good for physical and material aspects of life. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch registers his disappointment with an over-focus on physical endeavors: “Indeed, there is nothing more offensive than the pompous gusto with which men converse about the merits of food and drink.” However, when it comes to spiritual endeavors, like learning Torah, some argue that there is no value in silence, but speech is preferred (Rabbi Yosef Nachmias). Learning can be enhanced when one discusses, questions, and challenges ideas (Rabbi Yosef Alashkar). Others, however, contend that even when it comes to learning, silence is preferred (Pirkei Moshe). For instance, Meiri argues that learning requires active listening and talking too much can detract from such processes.
The second clause, “it is not the theory (midrash) that is of primary importance, but action,” highlights the importance of performance over just learning or talking. Judaism is a religion of mitzvot. While some mitzvot relate to thought, speech, and emotion, most require physical action and enactment. Sforno’s formulation in his commentary on this Mishna is particularly striking:
Nonetheless, in spite of the importance [of the gift of speech], it is not the expression and exposition of [man’s thoughts] that is of paramount importance and [man’s] ultimate goal and purpose, but the deeds which result from it as they affect society and the intellectual pursuit of knowledge.
Additionally, Rabbi Yosef Yavetz provides three reasons why action is more important than abstract learning. First, unlike angels, human beings are more material (chomer) than spiritual (tzurah), and therefore need physical actions to perfect themselves; second, belief in God does not get inculcated without concrete actions—logic and learning are not enough; and third, action-oriented mitzvot demonstrate obedience and subservience to God more than abstract thought. For all these reasons, action is more important than just thinking or learning. Relatedly, recent research into embodied cognition indicates that the most effective learning is not done through theoretical discussion but through physical enactments (see Shapiro & Stolz, 2019).
Finally, in the third clause, Rabbi Shimon cautions of the potential sin lurking behind excessive speech. In his commentary on this Mishna, Rambam distinguishes between five different types of speech: 1) mitzvah (learning Torah);, 2) forbidden (lashon hara, lying, etc.); 3) despised (pointless speech); 4) beloved (praising virtuous behavior) and 5) permitted (business, daily needs). According to Rambam, this Mishna is only referencing the last category. The forbidden and despised categories are obviously problematic, and the mitzvah and beloved categories should not be limited. It is only the permitted category that needs the warning. Do not talk excessively about content in this category because it can easily blend into the forbidden and despised category. Yet even Rambam puts limits on the mitzvah and beloved categories. One shouldn’t talk at the expense of performance (as is evident in Rabbi Shimon’s second clause above), and that even when talking Torah, one shouldn’t talk too much or for too long. In fact, most commentaries understand Rabbi Shimon’s advice to limit speech as being pertinent to Torah. Even while learning and teaching Torah one needs to be careful to not be too verbose as that can lead to several negative consequences (for different examples, see Rabbeinu Yonah, Machzor Vitri, and Midrash Shmuel).
In all, as Rabbi Dr. Twerski noted, Rabbi Shimon would likely be an advocate of a more behaviorally-oriented approach to growth, rather than relying on the “talking cure.” Verbosity is problematic, silence is beloved, and action is supreme.