God Squad: Keep holy names out of curses

God Squad

Rabbi Marc Gellman God Squad

Rabbi Marc Gellman writes about religion for Newsday.

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My Jewish girlfriend was in the habit of using "Jesus Christ" as a curse. I was offended by the use of the holy name as a profanity and asked her not to do this in my presence. Then one day, her son was in the backseat of the car when his toy car broke and he screamed, "Jesus Christ! My car broke!" My girlfriend told him not to say that, but he responded, "Why not, Mommy? You always say it." Trying to be funny and to relieve my girlfriend's inability to respond to her son, I jokingly said, "Because you're a little Jewish boy, and Jewish boys don't say 'Jesus'; they say 'Moses!' " The next week, the boy broke his truck again and screamed, "Moses! I broke my truck." We could not stop laughing, but I don't know if I said the right thing to the boy.

-- C., West Palm Beach, Fla.

I admire your piety and honesty. Personally, I love teaching children how to "curse" properly because I love expressive but appropriate language, and because I love God. Therefore, I don't want children to grow up using God's names as curse words.

Cursing causes linguistic spiritual corrosion. This is why cursing with God's name is explicitly prohibited in the Ten Commandments. It's Commandment No. 2 or No. 3, depending on how you number the commandments. The worst prohibited curse is using the word "God" followed by the word "damn." Using "Jesus Christ" as a curse is just as bad, and you were absolutely correct and honest in telling your girlfriend that she'd offended you. As for her son, I don't think that "Moses! I broke my truck!" is going to last even for him. Just telling him to avoid using holy people's names for cursing ought to be enough.

In full disclosure, I must tell you that I was once called out by my dear friend Father Tom Hartman for using the JC curse. After overcoming my embarrassment at insulting my best friend's deepest beliefs, I understood that my insensitivity was the result of not having the reverential associations with the name of Jesus planted in the soil of my soul as a child.

Many of the ways we hurt each other arise not from hatred or cruelty but from simple ignorance. That's why we all need friends who are not just like us in every way. I don't curse with the name of Jesus anymore, but I am struggling with what to scream when I drop a heavy object on my toe. "Aw shucks!" or "Youch!" don't provide the emotional catharsis I need to express at times. So I'm a fan of "DAMN!" (without the God prefix). It avoids the wide array of truly obscene curses, yet it does get the job done at truck-breaking moments in my life.

The point of all this is that the way we express anger and disappointment must not just allow us to wallow in our self pity but must also point us back to a time when anger subsides and we can speak the name of God in joy.

I've been invited to the unveiling of the monument for my friend's late husband, which is quite a distance from where I live. Is it an honor to be invited? Am I obligated to attend? Can I or should I send something (fruit basket/cookies)? I don't want to be embarrassed or cause any hard feelings, but I really have no idea what's expected.

-- J., via email

The dedication of a stone monument at roughly the end of the first year of mourning is a Jewish tradition dating back to Jacob in Genesis, who set a marker on the road to Bethlehem for his beloved wife, Rachel, who had died in childbirth with her second son, Benjamin.

The ritual of the unveiling of a monument stone is usually attended only by close friends and family, who gather after the ceremony to eat something sweet. Sometimes, honey cake and wine are brought into the cemetery itself. It is an honor to be invited, but you are by no means required to attend.

I would suggest you send a fruit basket and/or make a donation to a worthy charity in memory of your friend's husband. You should also call your friend personally to express your condolences and ask that God might comfort her. Your desire to do the right thing for your grieving friend is itself an act of honor and spiritual compassion.