By Michael Jacobs / mjacobs@atljewishtimes.com

Words have the power to hurt and to help, and Sunday night, July 12, they had the power to unite religions for an interfaith discussion at the Istanbul Cultural Center in Alpharetta.

“Words can create, and words can destroy. And finally in all of our traditions, words can heal,” said Congregation Gesher L’Torah Rabbi Michael Bernstein, the Jewish voice on a panel that also included the Rev. Jeffery Ott, a Dominican priest at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church, and Muslim representative Kemal Korucu, the director of interfaith affairs for the Atlantic Institute.

The institute and the Neshama Interfaith Center co-sponsored the discussion, timed to conclude with a Ramadan fast-breaking dinner. A religiously diverse group of well more than 100 people attended the talk, during which Korucu emphasized that words, as powerful and useful things, are also dangerous things.

All three panelists said their faith traditions show great respect for the importance of words, despite the emphasis in secular culture on action over words with clichés such as “talk is cheap.”

Korucu cited one of the Quran’s creation stories as an example. When G-d creates Adam, He whispers the names of things to the first man. G-d then asks the angels, who questioned the wisdom of creating man, to name those things, and they can’t. Then He asks Adam, who names everything, and the angels prostrate themselves before Adam.

“There is power in the ability to name things,” Korucu said. For those who doubted the power of words, he cited the life-changing power of two words: “I do.”

“The power of words,” Ott said, “is to shape our lives.”

One of the great questions, Korucu said, is why G-d gave us tongues for communication instead of something more appealing to the “Star Trek” fan in him, such as a direct brain-to-brain dump that would avoid all misunderstanding and misinterpretation.

Never mind difficulties resulting from different languages, he said. “The danger comes from using the same word to mean different things.”

Neshama co-founder Rabbi Mitch Cohen, during closing remarks, argued that the danger comes from the missed nuances of words. He cited no less an authority than Depeche Mode, whose song “Enjoy the Silence” includes the lyrics “Words are very unnecessary. They can only do harm.”

The panel and audience members grappled with the power of silence.

Rabbi Bernstein noted that in Pirkei Avot, Rabbi Gamliel’s son Shimon says he has never found anything better than silence, and Korucu told a story about a wise man’s advice that smart people speak less.

“How do we decide when to speak and when to be silent?” Rabbi Bernstein asked.

Korucu noted that in Islam, someone who remains silent in the face of injustice is said to be a silent devil, but he said silence also can send a powerful message as long as it is not motivated by fear.

Silence can be viewed as agreement, Rabbi Bernstein said, but remaining silent also can be a proper expression of humility because we often are too quick to denounce injustice that isn’t there.

“We honor silence as a sense of awe before the mystery of G-d,” Ott said, pointing to the classic overnight silence in monasteries.

He said even the story of Jesus’ crucifixion reflects ambivalence on silence. One tradition, the priest said, is that Jesus remained silent before his accusers, refusing to give them power over him by engaging with them, but the Gospel of John gives Jesus a long speech denouncing them.

Sometimes both yes and no are unjust answers to unjust questions, Rabbi Bernstein said, and the proper response is silence that rejects the question. He found a parallel in the forgiveness offered to Dylann Roof by some relatives of the nine Emanuel AME Church members Roof slaughtered in Charleston last month. That forgiveness isn’t about moving forward, the rabbi said, but about not letting Roof define the conversation and thus have power over them.

“There’s something very full about silence,” Rabbi Bernstein said. “It’s not empty.”

An audience member said silence allows G-d to talk to and guide us, and Rabbi Bernstein said words that come to us from G-d are both powerful and frightening.