Thursday, September 11, 2014

Judaism’s Top 40: Elul 17, #25 Shmirat ha-lashon – Avoiding Gossip

Judaism believes that words have great power.  After all, the world was created through words.  Language is a gift that should be used wisely.  Gossip is dangerous and takes many forms, including malicious slander, unintentional slips of the tongue and even swearing (both in terms of cursing and in taking false oaths).  Long before the invention of email, the rabbis believed that a gossiper in Babylonia can kill someone in Rome.

CURSING:  what does it mean to curse God's name? If, as we read in Genesis, every human being is created in God's image, that divine part of us that is the essence of our humanity.  To insult God is to debase our own innate godliness, our human capacity for goodness and kindness.  Sometimes curses can be a creative way of dealing with powerlessness.  We see that in the colorful Yiddish curses that have sprung up.  And Jews have had good reason to shake their fist at the heavens.  When Job's wife implores, "Curse God and die," Job has every reason to do just that - but he refuses to, recognizing that God's blessings and curses are intertwined.  In fact, the very word translated as "curse" in Job 2:9 is "barekh", which also means to bless.  Job refuses to render God one-dimensional, the source only of evil and not of life's blessings too.  That's what cursing does. It turns God into a stereotype.  Once "bleeping" becomes your only way of express passion, you are unable to communicate creatively, to probe the complexity of deeper feelings. 

GOSSIP: Once on the High Holidays, I challenged the congregation to go from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur without gossiping.  No one could do it.  It’s impossible.  But everyone became much more aware of what they were saying, which is really the goal of the laws of gossip.

It is our good fortune that the greatest champion of sacred speech that the Jewish world has ever known lived only a century ago. Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan was also known as the Chafetz Hayyim, the Seeker of Life, after a book he wrote with that title. Kagan was the first to systematize the laws of gossip for a popular audience. He died in 1933, which is just about when everything began to go awry for the civilized world. Now, as distilled by the Chafetz Hayyim, here is how Jewish law instructs us to clean up our use of language.
• It is considered lashon hara, evil speech, to convey a derogatory image of someone even if that image is true and deserved. A statement that is not actually derogatory but can ultimately cause someone physical, financial or emotional harm is also lashon hara.

• It is lashon hara to recount an incident that contains embarrassing damaging information about a person, even if there is not the slightest intent that s/he should ever suffer harm or humiliation.

• Lashon hara is forbidden by Jewish law even if you incriminate yourself as well.

• Lashon hara cannot be communicated in any way shape or form, for instance through writing, verbal hints, even raised eyebrows. When that person you can't stand turns away and you roll your eyes in disgust to a third party, that is a form of slander known as "Avak Lashon Hara," the residue of evil speech.

• To speak against a community is a particularly severe offense.

• Lashon hara cannot be related even to close relatives, even to your spouse. The columnist Dennis Prager argues that this goes too far, saying, "If you never speak about other people with your partner, you're probably not very intimate with each other." Telushkin suggests that if we are going to gossip we should develop a way of talking about others that is as kindly and fair as we would want others to be when talking about us.

• Even something that is already well known should not be repeated. Princess Di had an affair. Yes, she admitted it before billions of people in TV. Too bad. We still can't talk about it unless that information has a direct bearing on the well-being of the person we're talking to.

• Tattling is a no no. This is called Rechilut in Hebrew. The crux is this: if you know that a person has spoken badly about your friend, you don't go to your friend and tell him, because all it does is cause him pain and provoke animosity between the friend and that other person. Well, you ask, shouldn't we have a right to hear what's being said about us? In practice, however, the one small piece of gossip transmitted often provides a totally false impression. Who here has never said a negative thing about the person you love the most? How devastating it would be for a so-called friend to tell our loved one about it. Mark Twain said, "It takes your enemy and your friend, working together, to hurt you to the heart; the one to slander you and the other to get the news to you."

• And finally, not only does Judaism prohibit the spreading of lashon hara, we can't listen to it either. And when we can't help but hear it, we are instructed not to believe it. Imagine how different our lives would be if everybody gave the victim of gossip the benefit of the doubt.

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