OOPS! I SHOULDN'T
SAY THIS... OR SHOULD I?
To the rabbis, gossip is a serious crime. To anthropologists, it plays a crucial role in negotiating the unfathomable waters of human relationships. For the rest of us, it presents a dilemma: how do we talk about people without hurting them and the communities we share?
In Judaism, damaging a person's reputation through gossip is akin to taking his life. The Talmud teaches: "A person's tongue is more powerful than his sword. A sword can only kill someone who is nearby; a tongue can cause the death of someone who is far away" (Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 15b).
Rabbinic laws governing gossip, or lashon hara, are as extensive as they are strict. We are forbidden to relate anything derogatory about others. Even if a negative statement is true, it is still considered lashon hara. If it is false, even partially so, the offense is the more severe motzi shem ra (defamation of character). Also prohibited is rechilut (talebearing, or reporting to someone what others have said about him). Lashon hara violates no fewer than thirty-one biblical commandments, among them: "do not utter (or accept) a false report" (Ex. 23:1), "do not go about as a talebearer among your people" (Lev. 19:16), and "cursed be one who smites his neighbor secretly" (Deut. 27:24).
In 1873, Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan, a commentator on the Shulchan Aruch and a teacher of musar (ethics), collected the laws of lashon hara and rechilut into one volume entitled Sefer Chofetz Chayim. So widely studied is this work that its author became known as the Chofetz Chayim, a reference to Psalm 34:13-14: "Who is the person who desires life (chofetz chayim)....Guard your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking deceit."
According to the Chofetz Chayim, we are forbidden:
We are even forbidden:
The Chofetz Chayim adds that the greater the number of people who hear one's lashon hara, the greater the sin. One who gossips habitually commits sins greater than idolatry, adultery, and murder.
Dangers of Lashon
What makes lashon hara even more insidious is the near impossibility of undoing its damage. The Chofetz Chayim tells the story of a penitent who asks him for a way to repair the harm done by his gossip. The Chofetz Chayim hands the man a feather pillow and instructs him to take it outside, slit it open, and shake its contents into the wind. When the penitent returns with the empty pillow, the Chofetz Chayim says, "Now, go collect the feathers."
Benefits of Lashon
Gossip also helps to create and define the boundaries of a community of shared values. It may even be instrumental in forming what F. G. Bailey calls "a moral community"--that is, "a group of people prepared to make moral judgments about one another." In fact, the first definition of a gossip in the Oxford English Dictionary is: "One who has contracted spiritual affinity with another by acting as a sponsor at a baptism (from god sib)." Consider the positive value of former classmates or camp buddies sharing information about members of their $roup: who is ill, who is getting divorced, whose child is having trouble, who is changing careers, who could use a friendly call. In other words, there is an appropriate connection between the intimacy of family or the closest of friends and the intimate information they share with one another.
In the realm of politics, lashon hara may be necessary in order to exercise our responsible roles as citizens in a democratic society. To vote, to speak out for justice, to respond intelligently to the dilemmas of our era, we need access to information about the actions of our public officials, good and bad. "Consider the implications of Daniel Ellsberg's leaking the Pentagon Papers to The New York Times," writes Rabbi Margaret Holub. "One could make the case that gossip ended the Vietnam War."
For the oppressed, lashon hara may serve as a means of resistance. "For much of human history," Gail Collins writes, "[gossip] was one of the few weapons available to the powerless: servants who spread stories about their masters, peasants who irreverently speculated about the most private aspects of life in the manor...." Today, if an employee suspects she has been discriminated against, speaking lashon hara may lead to confirmation of her belief and may become the first step in mobilizing resources, her own and others', to fight the discrimination.
Lashon hara can lead to self-understanding and connection with those closest to us. For example, discussing with a spouse, partner, or trusted friend a negative encounter with one's boss, though considered lashon hara, may help our loved one better understand why we are angry, uncommunicative, or depressed. Unburdening in this way may also result in our gaining a more balanced perspective on our situation and brainstorming strategies for resolving the conflict.
Lashon hara also plays a role in fostering creativity and self-expression. In commenting on society and the human condition, literature and the performing arts often describe people with satire, irony, and humor. "If we are honest," adds Rabbi Margaret Holub, "there is probably some percentage of that awful gossip we all do which is just fun. It really doesn't fan the flames of our negativity. It doesn't keep us from more serious and intimate conversation. It doesn't harm the person at whose expense we laugh. I think we each need a little free zone--a few minutes a week, a single trusted companion, something like that--to keep ourselves from being insufferably self-conscious or, worse, sanctimonious. The very same energy which allows us to laugh and mock also keeps us curious and alive."
In Jewish law, lashon hara is permitted when it is the only means available to alert someone of possible danger, and it is required when the intent is to warn others not to follow in the footsteps of one who has transgressed mitzvot. For example, lashon hara may be necessary if in private premarital counseling a rabbi learns that the groom-to-be has engaged in unsafe sex and refuses to be tested for HIV. In this case, telling the bride-to-be that her fiance's behavior and attitude might pose some risk to her and to their future is a mitzvah.
In business dealings as well, under certain limited circumstances, the rabbis permitted the exchange of negative assessments of a person's character and behavior. When asked for an employee reference, Rabbi Zelig Pliskin explains that you are "obliged to give a truthful answer, even if [your] reply...contain[s] derogatory facts...in order to prevent an unqualified person from being mistakenly hired." In such cases, a person is permitted to listen to lashon hara for cautionary purposes, but the listener is forbidden to take any negative information as the absolute truth.
A consumer is also "permitted to speak of the poor quality of a [vendor's] merchandise in order to prevent [a potential customer] from being cheated." And "it is permitted to speak lashon hara if you believe your words will help an injured person receive compensation."
Finding the Right
Give others the benefit of the doubt. When we witness infuriating behavior, instead of automatically ascribing to the offender the worst of motives and then sharing our judgment with others, we might instead assume the best of intentions--or that the offender was simply misguided. "As we ju]ge others favorably, so will God judge us favorably" (The Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 127b).
Rebuking wisely. If a situation arises which cannot be simply "explained away," our tradition enjoins us to rebuke the presumed offender directly and privately (publicly embarrassing someone is prohibited). Leviticus 19 states: "You shall surely rebuke your neighbor !hocheyach tochiach et amitecha), but incur no guilt [because of him]." Notably, this mitzvah“appears immediately after the prohibition, "Do not go about as a talebearer" and immediately before, "You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your kinsfolk. Love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Eternal God."
Although we may hesitate to offer rebuke (tochecha) for fear of "hurting another human being, ruining a relationship, engaging in an unhealthy power struggle, or opening up our own sense of vulnerability and insecurity," says Rabbi Matthew Gewirtz of Rodeph Sholom Congregation in New York City, "we are nevertheless commanded to rebuke." To minimize the risk of causing hurt feelings, Rabbi Gewirtz offers these guidelines from Jewish tradition: Be aware of your motives before proceeding. Do not rebuke someone out of anger or jealousy arising out of your own sense of failure. Maimonides advises us to "speak to the offender gently and tenderly, so that he can hear the critique" (Mishneh Torah Hilchot Deot 6:7).
Nurturing Appreciation. While rebuke, or direct criticism, can be a mitzvah, we must be mindful not to nurture negativity in human relations. As Rabbi Gewirtz says, "Let us not allow our responsibility to offer tochecha to prevent us from also seeing the good in each other. We all need to be appreciated. We all need to be loved. We all want to live with each other in peace....[But] love unaccompanied by criticism is not 'ove....Peace unaccompanied by reproof is not peace" (Genesis Rabbah 54:3).
Should the Reform Movement establish standards of acceptable and undesirable lashon hara? Just as libel laws vary from state to state and have changed over time, guidelines for lashon hara should be developed at the local level to address each community's unique circumstance. Congregations notorious for stoking the destructive fire of lashon hara may have to emphasize prohibitions and sanctions; on the other hand, congregations in which all negative comments are suppressed may need to concentrate on opening channels for permissible lashon hara.
Every synagogue can benefit from implementing steps to address the underlying causes of lashon hara. Congregants whose insightful questions or concerns are ignored may gossip out of frustration. Those who persist in raising thorny questions may be pegged as "chronic complainers" and dismissed. Others who may have legitimate complaints may simply leave the congregation without a sound. "A leader who is uncomfortable with dissension, who is unable to encourage others to express their differences, [and] who negatively judges those who do surface disagreements is going to cause even more organizational difficulty," says Stephen B. Leas, director of consulting for the Alban Institute, in Leadership & Conflict. The key to stemming the tide of lashon hara is to open avenues for direct criticism and honest feedback--practices which require good leadership.
When I arrived at Beth Am, The People's Temple in New York City in 1984, a bitter conflict between two warring factions had not yet been resolved. Though the focus of that conflict was no longer an issue, the war continued. To "create an atmosphere where gossip would not breed--in other words, to drain the swamp"--the temple president, Judah Rosenfeld, mandated a monthly "Liaison Committee" meeting, with representation from both sides as well as those with their ears closest to the grapevine and those in positions of power. Every month, committee members brought complaints from the congregation to my attention. One Liaison Committee member who had opposed my hiring carried a little notebook and, after each service, solicited criticism from those he knew might be dissatisfied; at each Liaison Committee meeting he drew the notebook from his pocket and went down that month's list.
For the first few years, the constant criticism was painful for me to hear. But I preferred knowing the substance of congregants' complaints to the anxiety of not knowing what people were saying about me behind my back. In time, when it became clear that the criticism would not scare me away, the Liaison Committee meetings became the place where the synagogue leaders (who eventually came to see themselves not as adversaries but as allies) helped me figure out how to respond to the criticism and how to avoid provoking it in the first place. The committee also allowed me to air my own concerns and enlist help in addressing them.
Rosenfeld's strategy had succeeded. The creation of an appropriate avenue to discuss issues curtailed gossip which arose from congregants' legitimate concerns and grievances.
While the Chofetz Chayim prohibits "disgracing, belittling, or ridicule" of a rabbi as lashon hara, legitimate disagreement with a rabbi's teaching is permitted. And so, at Beth Am, following a tradition established decades earlier by Rabbi Israel Raphael Margolies, z'l, after each Shabbat evening service, the congregation satdown for cake and coffee and an hour-long discussion of that night's sermon. I was granted absolute freedom of the pulpit; the congregation was granted equal freedom to disagree. I never worried that congregants might whisper about my sermons behind my back; they shared their reactions to my face--blunt, trenchant, no holds barred. On occasions when there was no sit-down discussion, congregants who objected to a sermon would tell me so on the receiving line, in a letter, or by phone. In recent years, on-line discussion of my High Holiday sermons sometimes lasted months and involved an ever-widening group of congregants. As a result of the objections voiced directly to me, valuable dialogue replaced lashon hara, turning the temple into a community energized by the exchange of viewpoints.
Jewish law considers lashon hara against rabbis and other Jewish communal leaders a particularly egregious offense. If we witness a communal leader's transgression, we are instructed to assume that our eyes deceived us, or that the behavior was in error, or an aberration. And if we tell someone else what we saw, our punishment is the more severe because we committed lashon hara against a sage. In Gossip: The Power of the Word, Rabbi Stephen M. Wylen of Temple Beth Tikvah in Wayne, New Jersey rejects the Chafetz Chayim's hierarchy giving sages the greatest benefit of the doubt. Rabbi Wylen's wisdom has been borne out by revelations of sexual abuse of congregants and children by clergy who had been given the benefit of the doubt by their superiors.
With the exception of complaints from "clergy killers," grievances about synagogue leaders merit serious attention. In most cases, it is preferable that a synagogue president not censor a member's lashon hara by saying, "Lashon hara is a sin; I cannot listen to you," or cut off the objection midstream by refuting its contents. In many complaints there lies valuable information about the subject of the lashon hara, its speaker, and/or the circumstances which gave rise to its utterance. Rabbi Wylen advises: "Even a tongue-lashing from a spiteful person may contain some surprising insight into our character that we can use to our own advantage if we will only listen... 'Rebuke a wise man and he will love you' (Proverbs 9:8)."
As synagogue leaders will inevitably receive direct or indirect criticism, they are well advised to ask themselves: "What support do I need to listen to lashon hara (or rebuke) without feeling so vulnerable that I am compelled to respond defensively?" How well a ›eader meets this challenge will affect the synagogue's well-being. "The quality of interpersonal transactions between members of a congregation," writes Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, "is the single most important factor in determining its health. Do they bear witness to the piety the congregation claims to perpetuate? Where the human relationships are self-righteous, deceitful, and toxic, congregational life is wretched. Where they are tolerant, honest, and nurturing, congregational life can be a transforming joy."
In Mendocino, California, Rabbi Margaret Holub and members of her community have been discussing passages from the Chofetz Chayim and experimenting with standards of "right speech." "More than once of late, I've heard someone stop a sentence and say, 'Oops! I shouldn't say this,'" Rabbi Holub writes. "The very process of being aware of how we speak about others and how we hear others will itself guide us in the direction we want to go. This process...is exactly the opposite of the kind of frozen silence that I fear when speech is thoughtlessly curtailed. I have every confidence that we will find our answers as we keep talking."
As we keep talking, may we remember the wisdom of Proverbs 18:21: "Death and life are in the power of the tongue."
Rabbi Margaret Moers Wenig, HUC-JIR class of 1984, is rabbi emerita of Beth Am, The People's Temple in New York City and instructor in Liturgy and Homiletics at HUC-JIR.
Copyright © 2002, Union of American Hebrew Congregations