The Last of Deuteronomy
You must not bring an abhorrent thing into your house, or you will be proscribed like it; you must reject it as abominable and abhorrent, as He has commanded us. Deuteronomy 7:26
Detestable, repugnant, loathsome, revolting, hateful, vile, abominable. We have so many words in English to express our disgust at something that is meant to be kept outside of our circle. The sense of revulsion with which these words are saturated is palpable.
People with less-sophisticated word choices will often choose an obscenity associated with bodily effluence and either pack it in a sack or minimize it to a single piece to get the same point across. The listener will understand the same sense of revulsion.
There are other words that have acquired derisive meanings, especially when they are attached to human beings different from the speaker. Washington, DC’s professional football team just dropped its name and mascot because of such a meaning – never mind that the guy who named it almost a century ago thought it was a compliment. Asians have been slurred with a roster of names that are remarkably specific geographically. I’m not sure whether Arabs should be pleased or insulted that the scornful names they are called do not discriminate among their nations or cultures. Natives of Central and South America already had their own collection of disparaging slanders before they were pasted with “criminals, rapists, and drug-dealers” in the last presidential campaign. Even Europeans, when they are too closely identified with stereotypical personality traits courtesy of localized bigotry, find themselves called by some derivative of their country or culture when neighbors wish to diminish them.
How can I write about these noxious nicknames without mentioning the two groups that seem to suffer most, especially in the United States?
White people have been so effective in labels of oppression that there is still no lasting consensus, even among Black people, of what the appropriate way is to describe a person of African heritage. Even with the slowly evolving consensus that some names are intolerable, in my lifetime the respectful way to refer to members of the Black community has changed at least six times. If you need proof that the adage “names will never hurt me” is a bald-faced lie, this ought to be it. Of course, the infamous “n-word,” so pervasive that even Black subculture has adopted it, remains the most reprehensible utterance in modern discourse.
In fact, it is so inappropriate that some years ago a (White) public official in DC used a synonym for “cheap” in a budget discussion – niggardly – and lost his job because of the uproar. Though he was later reinstated, I cannot remember seeing that word again since then until I typed it here.
The other group, of course, is my own: the Jews. Even our proper name – Jew – is a slang term for, uh, niggardly. When playing Scrabble, you cannot use Muslim, Hindu, Christian, Jain, or Buddhist (and not because, like Zoroastrianism or Scientology, they are too long), but “jew” is perfectly acceptable in the meaning of trying to get an undeserved bargain. The collection of derogatory names is so comprehensive that it is almost impossible to make reference to Jews without someone, somewhere hearing a dog-whistle. There are even some (not I) who believe the word “Jew” should never be used; collectively we are “the Jewish community” and individually we are “Jewish.”
Today, rightly so, people are exquisitely sensitive to the connotations of name-calling. It is bigoted behavior to use a slur, and even the deployment of those labels in art, entertainment or protest are less and less tolerable. Using them to indicate that someone is detestable is dehumanizing and itself detestable.
It is a truth that the Bible commands us dozens of times to consider the stranger (that is, someone different from ourselves) with love and kindness because we know what it is like to be strangers to others. No one should use crude and hateful names for someone, especially someone we mean to embrace.
The phrase for “abominable” in the verse above is shakeitz t’shak’tzena. It is from this phrase that the colloquial way some Jews refer to non-Jewish women and men is derived. A shiksa is a detestable thing. A sheigetz is an abomination. Never, ever, ever use those words.