The Last Word on Slanderous Speech

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While contemporary Jews might find problematic the connection made between disease and divine punishment, the lessons that both ancient and modern rabbis offered on the consequences of gossip and slander are quite valuable.

PARSHAT TAZRIA
LEVITICUS 12:1-13:59
Most of this week’s Torah portion, Tazria, and next week’s portion, Metzora, concerns itself with the laws of the identification of and purification from a variety of mysterious skin ailments called tzara’at, which usually is translated as leprosy.
Dermatologists today believe this translation is a misunderstanding of the disease described in the Torah and consider it likely to be a form of psoriasis or eczema. Whatever the malady, the sages of the Talmud interpreted it as a punishment from God for specific sins, the most common opinion being for lashon hara, gossip or slander.
The latter interpretation is derived from a rabbinic pun on metzora (the word for the person afflicted with the skin disease) as motzi shem ra, which means “slanderer” (Arakhin 15b). Also, the two specific incidences of the disease in the Torah both occur when people speak negatively about others.
While contemporary Jews might find problematic the connection made between disease and divine punishment, the lessons that both ancient and modern rabbis offered on the consequences of gossip and slander are quite valuable.
Jewish law distinguishes three categories of forbidden negative speech:
1. Rekhilut (gossip): telling someone that a second person said or did something against them;
2. Lashon hara (evil tongue): saying something negative about someone even if it is true; and
3. Motzi shem ra (slander): saying something negative and false about someone.
Often these are grouped under the generic category of lashon hara.
The great 19th century rabbi and expert on lashon hara known as the Chofetz Chaim, Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan, connected no less than 31 positive and negative commandments to lashon hara. Defamation and gossip create rifts between family members, divide communities and fray the social fabric, creating separation and loneliness.
It is interesting that the rabbis saw the temporary exile and isolation of the metzora outside the Israelite camp as a just punishment for lashon hara. Ironically, the reason some people engage in lashon hara is to connect with others and overcome their loneliness.
One reason lashon hara is considered such a terrible sin is because the damage it does often cannot be undone. Once false information is spread, reputations may be destroyed or the harm done to a relationship may be irreparable. Social media in its various forms and email have not only provided more opportunities for lashon hara, but also made it worse; once something is out on the Internet, it is difficult to contain its effects.
Long before the age of the Internet, however, the rabbis recognized how pervasive lashon hara was and how difficult it was to refrain from it. This recognition is the reason so many of the traditional litany of sins we recite on Yom Kippur refer to sins committed through speech.
What is the antidote?
The Chofetz Chaim suggested that we constantly study the laws of lashon hara so we know them thoroughly. Thus, we would inculcate awareness about what type of speech is permissible and what is forbidden. This is not practical for most of us.
The head of the Ponevezh Yeshiva, Rabbi Barukh Dov Povarski, opined that we ought to engage in more non-verbal communication, as there is less chance we will stray into lashon hara. Good advice, but it, too, clearly has its limitations.
Some very observant Jews only speak about holy matters on Shabbat, but this significantly reduces social interaction and doesn’t address the others days of the week. You can see signs in some sections of Jerusalem promoting a ta’anit dibbur, literally a speech fast, for 24 hours. When you don’t talk at all, of course, there is no lashon hara.
Perhaps this last idea, while extreme, might point us in the right direction. Maybe we would all be better off speaking, communicating via social media or texting less. If we made our communications really count, by thinking twice before we spoke or wrote, imagine the results.
The dictum of Shammai in Pirkei Avot, “Say little and do much,” might be the best last word on our subject.
Rabbi Alan Iser is an adjunct professor of theology at Saint Joseph’s University. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent. 

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