Have you ever been in a situation where gossip hurt feelings? Can you reflect on an example of this from your own life?
Long before a rabbi by the name of Yisrael Meir Kagan, known as the Hafetz Hayim, penned his famous treatise on the laws of lashon hara, or “evil speak,” the most basic articulation of the laws was penned by the great medieval philosopher and Torah scholar Maimonides in the 12th century.
In Hilchot Deot, Laws of Personal Development 7:1-3, Maimonides lays out the laws of lashon hara. Although there is one broad category of prohibited speech known as lashon hara, it can really be broken down into three categories.
- Rechilut. Also known as gossip, it is not necessarily negative but it is the act of speaking about the life of someone else who is not there when being discussed.
- Lashon Hara is a form of rechilut. The distinguishing factor is that it is actually negative gossip. The content of what is being shared is true. It is factual. Interestingly, many of us make the mistake of saying something like, “Well, what I am sharing is true so it is not lashon hara.” That is a fundamental misunderstanding of lashon hara. Lashon hara is specifically sharing disparaging information about someone which is true.
- The final category of “evil speech” is known as “motzi sheim ra,” or spreading false rumors – describing someone or something in a way that is disparaging and false.
Of course, there are many exceptions to the rule. Jewish law rarely legislates laws without exceptions, and there are cases in which it is both permitted and even valuable to share information about someone, but we need not be too quick on the draw to find those exceptions. Rabbi Kagan, in his introduction to the Laws of the Prohibition of Lashon Hara and Rechilut, Negative Commandments, notes some exceptions, such as tale-bearing required in a Jewish court of law, or revealing information to protect a person from serious harm. Nevertheless, he concludes, “In all of these exceptions, a person is not permitted to reveal information if the same objective could be fulfilled without revealing information.”
After reading Senator Bernie Sanders’ tweet about AIPAC, I wondered which of the three categories of “lashon hara” Sanders violated.
“The Israeli people have the right to live in peace and security. So do the Palestinian people. I remain concerned about the platform AIPAC provides for leaders who express bigotry and oppose basic Palestinian rights. For that reason I will not attend their conference.”
Is the latter part of Sanders’ tweet “rechilut” – mere gossip; lashon hara – gossip that is true but disparaging; or is it motzi shem ra – false and disparaging?
Former chief rabbi and prolific author Jonathan Sacks notes that, “Despite the fact that it [lashon hara] is not singled out in the Torah for a prohibition in its own right, the sages regarded it as one of the worst of all sins. Citing Maimonides, Sacks goes so far as to say, “Astonishingly, [lashon hara] is as bad as the three cardinal sins – idolatry, murder and incest…combined!”
How is this relevant to my experience at AIPAC?
I heard presidential candidate Joe Biden call for security for Israel and care for the Palestinians.
I heard House Majority leader Steny Hoyer declare that both Democrats and Republicans work together to fight BDS, because “We see BDS for what it is: a discriminatory movement.“
I heard Vice President Mike Pence describe Israel and America as “mishpacha.”
I heard intelligent people from the Brookings Institute, the Hudson Institute and Beacon Global strategies debate President Trump’s policies, offering conflicting views.
I heard progressive rabbis champion Heschel’s commitment to social justice and his passionate attachment to Israel.
I heard Amanda Berman, the head of Zioness, demand that the Jewish world engage in even more social justice.
I heard Chloé Valdary, head of Theory of Enchantment, implore all of us to focus more on love, and to grapple with the question, “How can you make sure to feel genuine concern for someone who is your enemy”?
There were progressive democrats and conservative republicans in the same room actually talking with one another.
“Bigotry and opposing basic Palestinian rights”? Certainly not what I heard.
From my experience, it was clear that in his remarks about AIPAC, Sanders was guilty of the worst of the three categories of evil speech, “motzi shem ra.”
So, why does the Torah prioritize the sinfulness of evil talk? Rabbi Sacks explains: “Judaism is less a religion of holy people and holy places than it is a religion of holy words.”
The famous western adage articulates that “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” In Judaism, we simply do not ascribe to this idea. Rather, if we consider the wisdom of Judaism, we can begin to understand how lashon hara can destroy lives and poison public discourse.
However, I want to issue a warning to each of us. Although many of us may have the temptation to “fight fire with fire” and talk back in a nasty way at Senator Sanders, my fear is that this will just fan the flames and contribute to a neverending cycle of ad hominem attacks and retreating to our cozy echo chambers. Instead I suggest we engage in three very simple activities as they relate to lashon hara about AIPAC and Israel.
- Learn the story of Israel. Make the history, the politics, the civics of society front and center in your lives. How? Use our videos from Unpacked for Educators.
- Interpersonally, speak kindly to one another, lifting each other up instead of looking to tear each other down. As former president Ronald Reagan taught, “Your 80% friend is not your 20% enemy.” Look for commonality, not differences.
- First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt said it best: “Great people discuss ideas, average people discuss events. Small people discuss people.” While it is easy to get caught up in name calling, personal attacks and excoriating politicians we disagree with, let’s spend more time discussing ideas and values, debating thought instead of disparaging people.
In a world where politics can often divide, let’s commit to passionately articulating our points of view without degrading the other. Most importantly, let’s commit to working towards a better tomorrow where we’re careful with our words and concerned about the dignity of each individual.