The evil tongue
It should come as no surprise to anyone that I’m obsessed with words. Spoken, written, thought: words are our currency – the way we experience and process so much of our world and our relationships with each other. Try banishing all words even for an hour and you’ll see what I mean. The human mind is a noisy, wordy thing.
I mention all this because words – and their power – have been at the forefront of life in my congregation this week (if you know not of what I speak, just as well). Public statements, furtive conversations, emails, Facebook exchanges: my holy community has been struggling with what constitutes gratuitous gossip, what necessary truth, and what lashon hara, the “evil tongue” expressly forbidden in Jewish tradition.
You may recall that it was this last category that got Miriam & Aaron in trouble in this week’s Torah portion, as described in my post earlier this week.
Just what is lashon hara? In a word, gossip. Talking about someone else. When one shares something negative about someone else, even if it is 100% true, that’s lashon hara. On the other hand, motzi shem rah – “bringing forth a bad name” – is the telling of lies. Telling your spouse about mutual friends you witnessed in a compromising position at the local bar is lashon hara; making the story up and repeating it around town to get back at one of them for running over your cat is motzi shem rah. The latter is never permissible. The former does have its place, particularly in a court of law or to save someone from harm.
Got it? Here, then, are some miscellaneous thoughts on the complications of an evil tongue. I invite your comments.
1. I’m sitting in the garden at my mother’s retirement condo as I write. Every few minutes she tells me a story about this person or that passing by (he left his first wife and his kids never forgave him)(she never has a kind word for anyone)(etc.). It makes my mother happy to share these opinions that otherwise she would have to keep bottled up. Who am I to withhold her pleasure? If I don’t pass it along – and I don’t know these people – is there harm done?
2. Really? No idle gossip? Ever? If I never talked about anyone else, I would be a mighty boring dinner companion. There’s only so much world events, updates on the family, and philosophical ruminating one can do. How do we not talk about other people when we are social animals, when we spend our days interacting with prime topics of conversation?
3. Intent is clearly a deciding factor in lashon hara, the context in which you’re speaking the truth. Does your intent need to be 100% pure in order to pass the test? Is that ever possible? Will 75% suffice?
3. As my friend Y. points out: it’s impossible to know what your listener will do with the information you’re passing along. Agreed. Now what?
4. Doesn’t a limitation on truth-telling put a big fat X through much of news reporting? Yes, I’d be happy without Fox news (but not MSNBC) and most of reality television (not Dancing with the Stars), but what about Fresh Air or This American Life?
5. Often, gossip is like eating too much sugar. You know you shouldn’t indulge, it feels really good in your mouth, but afterwards – ugh, guilt and a touch of queasiness. Yet, we do it over and over again. Perhaps it is the “morose delectation” of schadenfreude, that little jolt of happiness we sometimes get over the suffering of others. Given how widespread this is, I wonder if it isn’t hard-wired. Maybe that’s why this is such a struggle.
6. How about speaking truth to power?
7. How about saying nice things about each other? Or does that just tempt the evil eye?
8. A friend of a friend says that the issue is not silence and secrecy, but rather cultivating a non-judgmental attitude. In theory, I’m in full agreement. In practice, I just don’t know. Some situations cry out for judgment.
9. My friend V. says that you don’t have to tell everything you know. Agreed.
10. If we could learn to laugh about ourselves more, would we care whether or not people were talking about us (cause you know they’re talking about you if you’re at all interesting). I’d rather people enjoy a good laugh at my expense than for folks to lie about me, even if it’s a compliment. I want my true actions in the world to be defensible.
11. How do we help each other through the tough times in our lives if we don’t bond over our mutual enemies and dislikes? Not trying to be difficult here, but I’ll be damned if I’m always going to take the high road. (And is talk therapy exempt from the rules?)(What about pillow talk?)
12. I really like my mother’s stories. I also like the notion of calisthenics for the soul (thanks, Jen!), i.e., refraining from putting more bad vibes/karma/words into the world. Reconciling the two is tough.