The good old traditional curse does not get much respect in our culture.
Now, those curses spoken by God in the Bible make some sense; for the most part, they contain threats of punishments that will be inflicted on the disobedient and the wrongdoers by a deity who is capable of following through with his threats. But, human curses are quite a different matter. It popular parlance they tend to be equated with simple insults, or even obscenities. The more precise meaning of a curse — that a person’s words can wield the supernatural power to inflict harm on victim—is not taken very seriously in our sophisticated scientific intellectual climate.
Although the malevolent potential of a curse is something that is regarded with serious trepidation in Jewish folklore, among Kabbalists and other more credulous types, Jewish thinkers who studied philosophy and subscribed to more rational interpretations of the tradition were less sympathetic to the notion that humanly uttered curses have the ability to hurt their targets.
Initially it would appear that their skepticism is contradicted by the words of scripture: After all, if there is no substance to a curse, then why does the Torah include prohibitions against them among the commandments.
In his Arabic treatise on the 613 commandments, Moses Maimonides devoted an extensive and insightful excursus to this question. His starting point was the verse in Leviticus: “thou shalt not curse the deaf,” from which the Jewish oral tradition derived a comprehensive prohibition against cursing one’s fellow. What, then, was the point of singling out the deaf for special attention in this text?
Maimonides concluded from this anomaly that the opposition to cursing cannot possibly be because of any harm that it can cause to its victim. After all, deaf people will not even be aware of the curses or insults that have been directed against them. Indeed, he concludes that this is precisely the lesson that we are intended to deduce. The Torah’s purpose in forbidding curses was not rooted in the shame or insult to which the victim has been subjected; if that were the case, then there would be no sin in cursing the deaf, seeing as they do not normally suffer distress from a curse—and yet the Torah admonishes us that such cursing is nonetheless forbidden! This must be because the Torah is not approaching the matter from the perspective of the victim, but rather it is concerned principally with the psychological and moral effects on the person who is doing the cursing.
By way of explanation, Maimonides provides a fascinating mental typology of people who allow themselves to indulge in enraged indignation. When such persons have suffered a wrong, they are roused to an anger that will not abate until the wrongdoer (real or imagined) has been made to suffer harm to a degree that is proportional to the damage he has inflicted.
Whatever the real measure of guilt or harm that has been perpetrated (and it is not clear that such matters can be objectively measured), every victim makes their own mental assessment of the seriousness of the offense against them, and hence of the appropriate degree of retaliation that can provide satisfaction for the wrong. At the lowest tier are those serene souls who can be calmed by some token ranting or vocal curses against the offenders. This outlet will be most satisfying when offenders are not deaf, and can actually hear the nasty things that are being said about them. As we progress along the scale of vengeance, some wrongs will warrant destruction of property, bodily injury causing pain or disfigurement—and in the most extreme cases, the wronged party will not feel that justice has been achieved with anything less than taking the life of the offender.
Thus, Maimonides seems to be assuming that the harshness of the vengeance derives less from the gravity of the offense than from the personality of the avenger. But the intelligent religious personality must not allow itself to be swayed by irrational emotions like rage and vengefulness. Most significantly, if we tolerate or encourage the most innocuous level of venting rage—through cursing or other forms of verbal abuse—then we are effectively opening the floodgates to uncontrollable torrents of violent reprisals and feuding. It was for this reason that the Torah had the foresight to insist that we preempt this destructive pattern before it gets out of hand, by prohibiting the least harmful manifestation of vengeful anger: the harmless cursing of those who do not even realize that they have been cursed.
Maimonides’ point was aptly summarized by Rabbi Bahya bar Asher: "And all this is stated in order to encourage people to be careful about what they say, and not to adopt bad habits. The prohibition is not grounded in the effect it has on the fellow who hears the curse, but on the subsequent behaviour of the curser. If a person can be prudent in this matter with respect to the deaf, it goes without saying that one will act with restraint in the treatment of those who are capable of hearing."
Not all the Jewish commentators, even among those who took a rational approach to the tradition, shared Maimonides’ certainty that curses cannot really harm their targets. The thirteenth-century author of the popular compendium Sefer Ḥa-Ḥinnukh on the commandments of the Torah resigned himself to the acknowledgment that our limited human intelligence is incapable of grasping the true nature of curses and how they might affect their victims. It is an indisputable empirical fact that most people in the world take curses seriously.
Furthermore, Jewish tradition shared the philosophers’ assertion that our ability to speak is the most sublime human faculty, the unique ability that elevates us above all other creatures. It is therefore not unreasonable to posit that this divine gift, identified as the divine breath of life that was breathed into man, is imbued with the power to influence others for good or for evil.
Even if the curse’s impact is not of a metaphysical or magical nature, Sefer Ḥa-Ḥinnukh allows that the psychological damage is quite real. Viewed in this way, the Torah may outlaw curses as a form of violent assault. Although the mental anguish caused by a curse might be rooted entirely in the victim’s delusions about its efficacy, it still constitutes a kind of injury. Hence, by discouraging individuals from freely exchanging curses, insults and other forms of verbal abuse, Jewish law is lowering the collective level of volatility, and thereby helping to promote social harmony.
In his attempt to devise a rational basis for curses, Sefer Ḥa-Ḥinnukh invokes a principle of Maimonidean philosophy, that those elevated souls who have refined their spirits through metaphysical contemplation can achieve remarkable results through the words that they speak. He argues that the Torah's ban on curses is founded on the premise that this verbal power is real. The author appreciates that this approach is at odds with that of Maimonides who utterly denied the reality of curses.
Each of these approaches has had its supporters among Jewish thinkers. I would like to imagine that if they were to be thrown into a room together, then the disagreements over similar questions of theology, exegesis or religious law would be discussed respectfully, even amicably. Unfortunately, I have too much experience with academic feuding to be completely confident about the prospects.
Nevertheless, I shall try to refrain from uttering curses (even under my breath) against those who violate the norms of civil debate.