When Jews think about lashon hara (Hebrew for "evil tongue"), we tend to focus on extreme examples such as the teenage suicide of Megan Meier, which her parents say was the result of a cruel MySpace prank.
Megan's death provides a horrifyingly literal illustration of an early Jewish teaching; the early rabbis taught that gossip and harmful speech are equal in iniquity to murder, adultery, and idol worship combined.
In reality, though it still adversely affects others, gossip tends to be much rather mundane, presenting itself in more subtle forms. Whether one speaks disparagingly about another person specifically ("He's such a jerk!") or about a whole group ("That's sooooo gay!"), lashon hara tends to be viewed more as "harmless gossip" (if there is such a thing), a "he said-she said" of less sensational variety.
In these cases, the damage done may not result in death or inflict physical pain. However, as made clear in Tractate Arakhin of the Babylonian Talmud, lashon hara of any kind harms three people: the speaker, the listener and the subject of the information shared.
This is just one example of the flipside to the
expression, “The pen is mightier than the sword.”
Indeed, as Rabbi Joseph Telushkin teaches in his book Words That Hurt, Words That Heal: How to Choose Words Wisely and Well, words (devarim) possess power. This is elucidated in the first pages of the Torah when God says "Let there be light," and light appears.
It is often a challenge to balance free speech and individual opinions with our obligation to treat others with dignity and respect. Jewish tradition urges us to consider the following when wielding the power of our words:
• Even if information being shared is accurate, it still has the potential to shame someone and violate Jewish principles.
• Before jumping to conclusions that others have done something that you consider to be unbecoming, give them the benefit of the doubt. As Leviticus 19:15 states, "Judge your fellow people with righteousness."
• If someone is engaged in conduct you find to be inappropriate, discuss it with him or her directly and privately. In doing so, you hew to the instructions in Leviticus 19:17 to rebuke a person without embarrassing him or her.
Some things to think about:
• What about gossip makes it so compelling at times?
• When do we refrain from gossip?
• How do we respond when other gossip around us?
• How do we harmonize the importance of open debate in a free society with self-imposed restrictions on lashon hara?
Rabbi Seth Goren is a project consultant with the Joseph Meyerhoff Center for Jewish Learning. This summer, he will become the first full-time director of the Hillel Society at Lehigh University.