The Timeliness of Lashon Ha’ra

Rabbi Norman Patz

Temple Sholom of West Essex

August 14, 2020 – 25 Av, 5780

The obituary for Adin Steinsaltz, published in the New York Times on Tuesday (Joseph Berger and Isabel Kirschner NYT 8.11.20) alerted us to the passing of our generation’s greatest Talmud scholar. Starting in 1965, when he was 27 years old, he worked, usually 10 hours a day, on a translation of the Babylonian Talmud, with a commentary as well, making the legal and theological content that governed the Jewish community from the 3rd century to the late 18th century, accessible in ways unknown before. Forty-five volumes! Astonishing scholarship and insight!

Among Steinsaltz’s concerns was lashon ha-ra, the Jewish injunction against speaking evil. One of his specific teachings on the subject caught my eye in the obituary and I will share it with you at the conclusion of these remarks.

In our time, in the current situation, both here and abroad, lashon ha-ra, vile talk, literally “bad tongue” – or, more colloquially, “bad-mouthing,” is a very serious problem. Polite discourse is a thing of the past. Today, personal insults are a daily matter of course, reflected in heated arguments about the limits, if any, there should be on free speech. Today’s battles for definition recall the opinion of Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes (Schenck v. U.S. 1919), denying free speech protection to statements which are false and dangerous. Justice Holmes wrote about the danger of “falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic.”

False and dangerous. That’s lashon ha-ra!

Our tradition contains a vast literature on lashon ha-ra: derogatory talk, slander, defamation, malicious rumors that destroy reputations. The evidence starts in the Bible, in the Holiness Code (Vayikra/Leviticus 19:16): “Do not act as a talebearer among your people.” And in D’varim/Deuteronomy (24:9): “Remember what God did to Miriam,” referring to an incident described earlier (Bamidbar/Numbers 12:10-15) where Miriam, Moses’ sister, talks behind her brother’s back, “he married a Cushite woman,” she says (Cushite is a term used to describe people of color).

Her punishment? She gets leprosy, (not what we know today as Hansen’s disease but) a severe skin rash, and is quarantined outside the camp for a full week. The Hebrew word for leprosy is tzara-at. There is a whole parashah in the Torah, entitled M’tzora, which deals with leprosy. It’s like reading a public health code. For obvious reasons, M’tzora and the parashah which precedes it Tazria, are the two worst possible b’nei mitzvah assignments of the Jewish calendar year!

But even for b’nei mitzvah, there is an important life lesson in this parashah. Based on the Miriam story, the Rabbis taught that M’tzora is a shortened form of three words – motzi shem ra – a teller of evil reports (to use an antiquated term). And on that basis, they taught that lashon ha-ra introduces leprosy into society: the social leprosy that hatefully divides people and sets them against one another. They warned: “Life and death are in the power of the tongue” (Mishlei/Proverbs 18:21). A person who willfully listens to slander, they said, will be open to being slandered. They said, lashon ha-ra kills three people: the slanderer, the listener, and the one who is slandered. Lashon ha-ra, they said, is a serpent with a poisonous three-forked tongue. Rashi teaches that “one who strikes his fellow in secret means ‘harming a person by a verbal attack without their knowledge’.” The Rabbis taught that the Temples in Jerusalem were destroyed because of lashon ha-ra (Yoma 9b, and Gittin 55b ff).

And note, the first passage offered in Hebrew and in English in the silent prayers at the conclusion of the Amidah, is “My God, keep my tongue from evil and my lips from speaking guile…” (based on Psalm 34:14). This key prayer on the power of speech has appeared in Jewish prayer books since the 9th century.

The Musar Movement in Judaism, which began in the late 19th century, concentrated on ethical speech. Its main book, by Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, was published in 1873. It is entitled Hofetz Hayyim, which translates into English as “who is the person eager for life?” (Psalm 34:13).The answer to which, in the following verse from Psalms, is “guard your tongue from evil and your lips from deceitful speech.”

The advent of the Internet and the networks of social media has been both a blessing and a curse. While it has enabled communication among deaf people, for instance, it has perhaps even more amplified the power of individuals and groups eager to spread lashon ha’ra. Think of the conspiracy theories that have spread instantly, like Pizzagate and Bible-burning. Both are deadly serious charges. That they have no substance in reality at all, hasn’t stopped them from being circulated widely. And there are a lot of gullible people out there who read these truly fake stories.

Here’s a story that demonstrates gullibility. After President Trump hyped hydroxychloroquine, the Wall Street Journal reported that sales of Hydrox cookies (the predecessor of Oreos), skyrocketed (Spencer Jakab, WSJ, May 19, 2020).

All of the conspiracy theories, this lashon ha-ra, which is unverified and unverifiable, whether from a seventeen-year-old computer geek, a neo-Nazi group, QAnon, the Russian secret disinformation unit of the GRU (Russian secret police) and RT (Russian Television, which Naomi and I saw screened on monitors on both PATH platforms and trains during the months we were going into the city for the trial. RT is an official propaganda arm of the Russian government. I don’t know if RT is still carried; I do know that we wrote letters objecting to its presence). And so many others, too many to name which aim to disrupt and destroy our democratic society.

What can we do personally? Look at the motto of a wildly popular current Israeli street campaign: Face masks, signs on public buses, stickers and bracelets, all saying: lashon ha-ra lo m’dabeir eilai” – I will not be persuaded by lashon ha-ra (Jerusalem Report, July 20, 2020).

Speaking evil starts with one person and one listener. So here are some guidelines:

Don’t gossip or listen to gossip – and certainly don’t repeat it.

Teach by example. Speak out when necessary.

Question sources. Don’t be gullible. Even if it’s in the papers or on the internet, it’s not necessarily true. If it sounds too good to be true, and connects the dots too readily, it’s sadly too likely not to be true.

Use basic civility and common sense.

Work to build a decent society. Don’t assist in tearing it down.

Rabbi Steinsaltz taught this to the members of the staff the Jerusalem Report: While most parts of the body have their limits – arms can carry only so much weight, legs can run only so fast – the tongue’s ability to do harm is unlimited. That’s why the tongue is set in a cage-like jaw in our mouths as a reminder: guard your speech carefully.

So let us do. So may we be wise. Kein y’hee ratzon.