This is a guest post by Twin Cities’ Jewish Educator Sean Herstein.
What does Judaism have to say about gossip?
The traditional litany of sins listed in the liturgy for the Day of Atonement includes no fewer than 11 transgressions related to speech and gossip. TMZ’s Harvey Levin (Jewish) makes a living by publicizing the embarrassing moments in the lives of celebrities. I wonder what kind of confessional he offered last Yom Kippur.
You might say, “These people are wealthy and famous! This is simply the price of fame.” You could also point out the fact that readers and viewers are obviously clamoring for celebrity gossip. Otherwise, paparazzi would not exist and we would all be able to pass through the check-out aisle in our favorite grocery store free from the onslaught of gossip magazines. Finally, you could offer up the (mostly true) statement that we all gossip.
That said, when we do participate in the spread of gossip and rumors (either about celebrities or our exes), most of us do feel at least a little guilty.
In order to get to the bottom of what Judaism has to say about gossip, I look at two extremes.
This is the approach I take with my middle school students. On the one hand, we have the author of the classic 19th century work on speech and gossip, the Chofetz Chaim. On the other, we have the Talmudic teaching of Rabbi Yirmiyahu ben Elazar.
The Chofetz Chaim generally defines gossip as anything person A says to person B about person C. Whether the words are true or false, positive or negative, or even if the subject would happily share the information, the Chofetz Chaim says that it is potentially harmful and must not be said. Unfortunately, most of us know people who consistently respond to positive statements about others by offering up their own, less-than-flattering reports about them. I personally find this very difficult to listen to.
My students consistently find the Chofetz Chaim shocking and inevitably come up with real-life examples where their teachers and parents are guilty of inappropriate gossip according to this strict definition (parent-teacher conferences). They feel very proud of themselves.
Then I show them the words of Rabbi Yirmiyahu ben Elazar: When one praises another not in his presence he may praise him in full. But in his presence, he should express only a portion of the praise due him (BT Eruvin 18b). This text tells us that we should actually compliment other people more completely to third parties than we do to the actual person. The idea behind this must be to avoid giving the person a big head about who they are.
If one extreme teaches not to ever speak about someone else while the other specifically instructs us to offer full praise of some else to third parties, how do we decide where to draw the line between ethical speech and gossip?
Luckily, we all have a conscience and as we gain life experience we learn what we should share and what we should keep to ourselves. Even the Chofetz Chaim agrees that certain situations require us to share information about others. Giving testimony in a court of law and protecting someone from immediate harm are traditional examples. Some important times to share information about others that I encounter in my job as a teacher include those parent-teacher conferences mentioned earlier, as well as when the law that requires me to report any suspected cases of abuse.
Gossip in Judaism is as old as the Torah (see Numbers, Ch. 12).
It is also shared via every means of communication available to us today, including celebrity gossip shows like TMZ. In order to navigate through the complicated social situations we find ourselves in, we need to use the moral compass that was planted within each of us to determine if the words we share about others cross the line into the realm of harmful gossip or if they are truly appropriate to share.
What do you think?
(Photo: Desiree Delgado)
Everybody gossips. Sean, even you couldn’t avoid it in the statement: “TMZ’s Harvey Levin (Jewish) makes a living by publicizing the embarrassing moments in the lives of celebrities. I wonder what kind of confessional he offered last Yom Kippur.” Sounds like Lashon Hara to me.
My devil’s advocate question is – if the standard is so high that everyone gossips, and no one can meet the Chofetz Chaim’s requirements, why have the requirements? Why create the guilt when we’ll all be guilty?
It’s not about guilt. It’s about being aware and thinking before you speak. If you make a mistake keep thinking and try to do better next time.
It’s nice to have an ideal to shoot for, even if we might never hit the bulls eye.
Leora, you got me. As I was writing I realized that I was also engaging in lashon hara. You see how hard it is! I am guilty as charged… but feel no guilt. To be fair, there is another view that says that if what you are sharing is already known by at least 3 people it is considered public knowledge and is not lashon hara.
As to your question, are you suggesting that if people are having a hard time following a law we should simply give up on that value? Take speed limits, for example. Many, many people speed but most speeders agree that the limits can save lives. We speed because there are not enough cops to pull us over every time. I believe that people gossip not because we think that it is ethical to do so, but because we do not get into trouble most of the time. In fact, we are often rewarded!
I would agree with ML who said that we must have ideals to shoot for. Susie wrote that it is not about guilt. I would agree with her also. I do not believe that Jewish laws exist in order to make people feel guilty. They exist to teach us about what an ethical life could look like.
Lastly, I presented the Chofetz Chaim as as the extreme position. Like every question in Judaism, a multitude of approaches exist. If his definition does not speak to you, even if through its clarity it gives us “an ideal to shoot for,” there are others out there to consdier.
What if both scholars are attempting to arrive at the same goal: preventing the 2nd party from speaking negatively about the third party.
If the Chofetz Chaim is concerned that any praise by person A about person C might inspire person B to follow-up with “well, you just think that because you don’t know what I know” leading to a sordid and maybe even juicy story . . . then one cure is certainly for person A to say nothing at all about person C to person B.
On the other hand, another cure could be for person A to go above and beyond in praising person C to such a complete extent that person B would either be persuaded that person C is marvelous, OR that person B would recognize how much person C matters to person A and refrain from saying anything negative.
Your text from Rabbi Yirmiyahu certainly gave no indication that he is in any way permitting slander.
If guilt were not a reaction to letting people down (which might mean letting them down by NOT gossiping when they would like us to) and instead a reaction to either acting/speaking outside our own values and/or letting God down . . . then perhaps although guilt is not the point it would be a more helpful guide.
Thank you for the discussion!