A Kind Word About Unkind Words


Candlelighting, Readings:
Shabbat candles: 7:30 p.m.
Torah: Lev. 12:1-15:33
Haftarah: II Kings 7:3-20
Havdalah: 8:33 p.m.            

It is customary at this point in our Torah lectionary cycle for rabbis to sermonize on the dangers of lashon hara, gossip. We are reminded, for example, of the Midrashic statement that gossip kills three people: the speaker, the listener, and the person being spoken of.  We are told that lashon hara is as grave as the three cardinal sins: idolatry, incest, and murder. And so on. This focus is sparked by the Talmudic association of gossip with tzara’at, a scaly skin affliction [Leviticus 13-14] often misidentified as leprosy.

I confess to ambivalence about this annual campaign. First of all, as the Talmud itself recognizes, gossip is an inevitable feature of human life. More fundamentally, the remonstrations against gossip and tale-bearing overlook the positive role that such activities play in society. People are generally the most interesting topic of conversation, and often the most important. Knowing the virtues and vices, the achievements and the weaknesses, of the members of one’s community is vital to effective functioning in that community, and may even be essential to survival.

Perhaps the best evidence of the indispensable role played by unflattering speech is that our sacred literature is so filled with it. Modern Jews often point with pride to the fact that the Bible does not hide the flaws of its heroes, but perhaps the deeper point is that such knowledge was deemed essential for our own religious formation, otherwise why include it?  For us, Judah would not be Judah without the dark shadows of his early history (as well as his eventual redemption). To understand the role of David in our religious self-understanding, it is essential to be aware of the episode with Bathsheba. 

Faced with this obvious fact, a pietist might respond that that only a biblical prophet can decide what information to reveal about the great ones, and that the average person is required to overlook or suppress the flaws of others, certainly of our heroes. But this pattern of dwelling upon the more dubious aspects of saintly character is found in later sources as well. Talmudic narrative derives much of its interest and power from descriptions of the foibles and eccentricities of the sages, along with their virtues and saintliness. Many stories of the Tannaim and Amoraim are quite astonishing; if translated into the contemporary context, they would certainly raise eyebrows and spark the ire of pietists. The Talmudic redactors certainly had many motivations in presenting these stories, but one obvious factor is that only thus do the sages come alive; only in this way do we know them as multidimensional human personalities available for inspiration, emulation, as well as avoidance.

This pattern does not end with the Talmud. Maimonides excoriates the individual who believes that God has a visible form (no matter how worthy in other respects), consigning such individuals to eternal damnation.  Rabbi Abraham ben-David (Rabad), in a famous critical comment, writes “Why did [Maimonides] call such a person a heretic? Many people, greater and better than he, had this idea, being misled by certain passages in Scripture and rabbinic literature….”

Maimonides and his epigoni would surely say that the characterization of an anthropomorphist as a sectarian or heretic is hardly lashon hara but necessary instruction in the truth of religion, a warning against dangerous error. And Rabad, for his part, would say that his deflationary remarks against Maimonides were a necessary defense of virtuous souls who may not have been philosophically sophisticated but who were otherwise entirely devoted to the life of goodness.

The problem is that we are tempted to abandon the rules against lashon hara just when we may need them the most. We never speak ill of people who we perceive to be good, only against the wicked — that is, those who do not share our ideological perspectives and social orientation. Like the denunciation of the early chasidim by the mitnaggedim, or the bitter recriminations hurled by some chasidic groups against other chasidic lineages, the most toxic language is always motivated by a sure sense of justice and rectitude, at least on the surface.

At least on the surface. This last phrase returns us to our Torah reading. The scale-affliction called tzara’at, whatever its precise nature, was a surface manifestation affecting the skin. As Sefat Emet writes, the affliction indicated a closing of the skin’s natural porosity, the thickening and calcification of the body’s interface between itself and the world. This would suggest that the remedy for tzara’at cannot be reduced to a formulaic set of rules about which speech-acts are permitted and which prohibited. While rules may provide basic guidance and orientation, ultimately we are called upon to become more sensitive and open human beings. The strictures against lashon hara should serve as an invitation to exfoliation of the hard boundaries that we think are necessary to guard the individual and collective self.

Ultimately, as Sefat Emet teaches, the problem with lashon hara is that it is talk that remains on the surface, and the antidote is the endless quest for deeper layers of meaning in ourselves and in others. As Sefat Emet assures us, the deeper we dive, the higher we soar.

Dr. Nehemia Polen is professor of Jewish thought at Hebrew College. He is the author of “The Holy Fire: The Teachings of Rabbi Kalonymus Shapira, the Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto” (Jason Aronson), and a contributing commentator to “My People’s Prayer Book,” a multi-volume siddur incorporating diverse perspectives on the liturgy (Jewish Lights).