Monday, July 6, 2020 -
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Modern twist on the ancient sin of lashon hara

THIS BOOK, an exploration into lashon hara in contemporary culture, arrives at a very opportune time. The Jewish community has just gone through a fierce battle over the Iran nuclear treaty, in which civility has been the main casualty.

Those on one side called the others “Quislings” and “Chamberlains,” and those on the other side called their opponents “warmongers” and “enemies of Israel.”

Now that the fight is over and the issue has been resolved, we are faced with the task of learning how to speak to each other without name-calling and without hostility once again.

And so this book, which deals with how to guard ourselves against making false accusations and against besmirching each other’s reputations could not have come at a better time.

Anyone who was on either side of this dispute should read this book, and learn from it how to disagree without becoming disagreeable, and how to distinguish between challenging your opponent’s point of view, and besmirching your opponent’s character.

This is an excellent book, and one that we can all benefit from. But even if it were not, after reading it, I would hesitate to say anything critical about it because the central truth that it teaches is that it is a sin to disparage any human being.

GOSSIP IS the sin that most of us are most often guilty of committing. We seldom hurt anyone with our fists or with our feet, but it is very hard to resist the temptation to make fun of someone or to besmirch someone else’s character.

A dear friend of mine, Rabbi Seymour Siegel, used to say that “a cocktail party is a place where we cut up sandwiches — and reputations” and we can all testify to the truth of this statement.

I remember giving a sermon once in which I asked the congregation to see if they could refrain from lashon hara — from evil speech — for 24 hours. The next morning someone came up to me and said: “I tried, rabbi, I really tried. But I got halfway to my car in the parking lot and I succumbed.”

So we know that avoiding lashon hara is very difficult and that this book is needed by us all.

This book is special in at least three ways.

One is because of the gigantic number of rabbinic sources on the subject that it brings together. The footnotes in this book refer to every section of the Talmud and to the codes and commentaries of the former and the later authorities.

The bibliography of responsa literature at the end of this book is very impressive.

The second thing that makes this book special is that until now, a book like this was almost always written in Hebrew.

Up until our time, rabbinic scholars assumed that they were writing for fellow scholars, and that anyone who wanted to know what the Jewish sources said on this or on any other subject knew enough to be able to read the references in the original.

Rabbi Feldman writes with a different premise: he assumes that we now live in a generation that wants to know what the sources say on this and many other topics, but that does not know how to read them in the original.

In the past there may have commentaries that were written in Aramaic or in Arabic, but there were very few, if any, that I am aware of that were written in Polish or in German or in Russian or in French.

The assumption was that you either lived in the Jewish world or in the outside world but that you did not care enough to connect the two.

This book is written in English, and it is introduced as part of the “Riets Practical Halachah Series” which indicates that there may be more like it coming, whose task it will be to make the sources and their implications available to the English reader. If so, that is good news for all of us.

THE THIRD way in which this book is special is that it contains a chapter that relates the traditional Jewish laws against evil speech to the complexities of the world in which we live today.

It takes up some of the issues that are raised by having the Internet at our fingertips, and it deals with questions that previous generations did not know anything about.

Among them: How legitimate is it to engage in negative campaigning, in which politicians do not speak about their own virtues or their own programs, but instead unearth and publicize every rumor about their opponent’s character?

Or, what are the rules and what are the ways of self-control that we need to have now that we live at a time when it is so easy to spread rumors, even anonymously, by means of computers that can carry our words across the globe in milliseconds?

One comes away from this book awed by both the vast amount of literature on the subject of harmful speech that exists in the Jewish legal tradition and by the relevance of this literature to the world in which we live today.

Rabbi Jack Riemer is a frequent reviewer of Jewish and general books in this and other journals in America, Europe and Israel. His book, Ethical Wills: How to Read Them and How to Write Them, written with Dr. Nathaniel Stampfer, has just come out in a new edition from Jewish Lights.

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