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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.

23 Comments leave one →
  1. Victoria H. Bedford permalink
    05/27/2010 4:13 pm

    First, a question: Is gossip always negative? Should we only say good things about people? What is venting? If we are discreet, can we be forgiven? Then there is a third course (I think), separate from saying bad things or good things and that is processing events and learning from them. I have two older girl cousins (over 10 years older) with whom my sisters and I spent lots of weekends at our aunt’s when growing up. One tells me now during one of their late night schmooze sessions, they noticed little very quiet cousins who were supposed to be sound asleep with eyes wide open, listening with rapt attention. I think this is one way we learn about the complexity of human relationships. On the other hand, we must avoid hurting or humiliating the people in these instructive “stories.” Perhaps our motives are what count most. By the way, I think about this a lot.

    • sue swartz permalink*
      05/27/2010 7:10 pm

      Yes, yes, yes. Story-telling – whether fiction or personal – is encoded in our DNA. (That’s my opinion, anyway.) And it is a central way that we learn about relationships and how to navigate in the world. You capture the necessity of showing humility and compassion in how we talk about others; especially those who have wronged us or who we are not fond of. This last is really difficult, in my humble, and one of the true tests of a person with wisdom. I, for one, am not there yet.

  2. judith rose permalink
    05/27/2010 4:25 pm

    ok – i’ll go first. schlemiel, schlemazel, schnorrer. just like the eskimos have many words for snow; jews have many words for individual types of behavior — often pejorative. how and why did we develop so many labels for human behavior? why do all the ‘bad’ ones start with sch while the one ‘good’ one ends with sch (mensch). we have such a rich tradition of name calling to counter our ‘sacred’ aversion to lashon hara. such a complex genetic makeup – who can count the stories of the kindly jewish bubbe on one hand – in contrast to the vindictive bitch mother in law on the other hand (or some such permutation).

    • sue swartz permalink*
      05/27/2010 7:00 pm

      I love this! Who else would have noticed the “sch” business? And yes, we do love our name-calling, have developed it into a fine art (which gives me hope that many before me also failed miserably at what something at the center of our self-definition).

      Schnook. Schmuck. Schmegegee. Schlub.

  3. abigail wolf permalink
    05/27/2010 5:33 pm

    Live a little!

    • sue swartz permalink*
      05/27/2010 7:02 pm

      If by this you mean: don’t worry so much! Okay, I buy that. For me, this is a question of morality, but that question has many questions…

  4. shana Ritter permalink
    05/27/2010 7:08 pm

    Fairly recently in life I discovered that you don’t need to say everything you think – especially to one’s partner – the notion of distilling speech sits well with me – at least at this point in my life – to hold the words until they come to their true meaning – or at least my true meaning…

    • Ian Boardman permalink
      05/27/2010 11:21 pm

      Absolutely. A key to peace in the family.

  5. 05/27/2010 7:14 pm

    Sue, I liked this. From what I’ve studied, it has been mentioned to not speak highly of others in front of their enemies because it might be tempting for the listener to discredit the individual in front of you. The past few weeks have opened a Pandora’s Box of spiritual awakenings. I’ve deduced that I will agree to disagree with many, and do what is real and right for me. I think of lashon hara to be like keeping our mouths kosher. If I can avoid the tempting subjects-(and even though I’m vegan I have times where I crave meat and cheese like crazy!), I can make myself more available to The Divine. The moment I indulge, I build a wall between myself and my ability to be loving and useful to others. Some days my best efforts suck.

    • sue swartz permalink*
      05/27/2010 8:16 pm

      Oooh, I love the idea of keeping our mouths kosher. If I can stay away from shrimp – which I love – then perhaps I can stay away from certain topics.

  6. Ian Boardman permalink
    05/27/2010 11:39 pm

    A major trauma recently ensued in my children’s Jewish day school, consuming the attention of several teachers, administrators and sets of parents, because two perpetrators of lashon hara in my daughter’s 5th grade class apparently paid no attention to the extensive anti-bullying lessons they were taught. There are programs engaging students over several grades in discussions specifically about lashon hara and ethical behavior. Yet it still goes on, and my daughter at such a young age has suffered a serious blow to her self-esteem and trust in other people — both peers and adults. I found it very disappointing, frustrating and sad.

    • sue swartz permalink*
      05/28/2010 7:11 am

      Ian, I’m so sorry to hear about your daughter’s experience. To my mind, bullying is evil speech beyond gossipy truth, beyond running to share in others’ misfortune. It’s nasty in children and deadly in adults. How difficult it must have been for you as a parent to witness.

      • Ian Boardman permalink
        05/30/2010 9:40 am

        Thanks for your kind response. I agree with your qualification on lashon hara vs. bullying. It probably doesn’t help people to understand the harm of gossip and trash talking if I mix it up with more intentionally hurtful behavior.

    • Lynda permalink
      05/29/2010 8:44 am

      Ian you are correct all Lashon Hara is bullying and there is no way to collect the feathers when lives are ruined. I am sorry that your child had to learn this lesson so early but the bullying starts with the adults and leaders and filters down. Good luck!

      • sue swartz permalink*
        05/29/2010 9:02 pm

        Sorry Lynda, but I have to disagree with you here. My off-handed comment to my sister about someone’s lack of fashion sense is NOT the same thing as direct and repeated name-calling. I’ve loved this conversation because of its nuance – let’s not lose sight of that in rightfully showing solidarity with Ian’s daughter.

  7. judith rose permalink
    05/28/2010 5:04 pm

    we kvell and we kvetch and we need a better description for kosher mouth – it is such a great idea and deserves a great name. kosher mouth sounds akin to mad cow disease and sacred tongue doesn’t sound much better. any ideas out there? i need to remind myself to cleanse my speech on a regular basis.

  8. Dan Price permalink
    05/28/2010 10:42 pm

    Unexplained conflict invites divisions and contention. The irony is that an attempt to avoid lashon hara may inspire it. It is this secondary lashon hara that widens the division to a gulf that can never be repaired. A bit more trust in those we choose to lead us and a willingness to suspend judgment (make that a refusal to engage in idle speculation), would have averted much trouble. Maybe the term “evil tongue” needs to be supplemented with the term “evil ear.” Lashon hara is as much an activity of the listener as the speaker.

    • sue swartz permalink*
      05/29/2010 8:55 pm

      Evil ear. That is right on. We do love our gossip and scintillating tidbits. Kosher speech (sorry, Judith, that’s the best I can come up with) and kosher listening are a necessity both.

  9. Carolyn Geduld permalink
    05/30/2010 10:07 am

    On the other hand—-if any or all of us have been betrayed, mistreated, traumatized, etc., we can only heal if we speak about our experiences to those trusted ones who will listen.
    We need to talk and talk and talk and talk about it and listen, listen, listen. Words can hurt—but words can also heal.

  10. Victoria H. Bedford permalink
    05/30/2010 1:39 pm

    I’m learning so much from these replies. Certainly discretion plays a role (what you say, how you say it, to whom you say it, WHY you say it). Now, what is the role of the listener? Sue’s evil ear? Carolyn’s therapeutic healer? Hmmmm.

  11. Carolyn Geduld permalink
    05/30/2010 4:24 pm

    Another thought: I’ve read that the social function of gossip is to work out social rules. Even then, there are options. For example, suppose someone gossips about a board member who does not attend Beth Shalom functions. One option is to be judgmental–which may be appropriate if a big rule is broken–like a board member who has not attended any board meetings. Another option is to discuss what the “social rule” is pertaining to board members and functions. A third option is to suggest tolerance–perhaps the board member has a good reason or perhaps the gossiper is being too petty. Aren’t all of these useful? Is what we are really questioning is that gossip is also fun?

    And this is for Jen: when your daughter reaches dating age, will you tell her to not listen to any “gossip” about the reps of the different boys?

  12. 06/08/2010 9:54 pm

    You must have read Chofetz Chaim’s book “The Concepts and Laws of Proper Speech”
    nice blog, keep of the good work and keep spreading Yiddishkeit ייִדישקייט.

    Jewish law (Halachah) defines Lashon hara as any talk about other people that serve no positive purpose- whether or not it is intended maliciously. Why Lashon hara is called “The triple tongue,” because it kills in triplicate.
    1. It kills the person, who says it,
    2. and the person, who receives it,
    3. and the person who is the subject of it. Talmud tractate Arachim

    The Gemara in tractate Bava Metziah 58b states that if one publically embarrasses another, it is as if he or she spills his blood, because the one who is embarrassed blushes, and the blood rushes to his face (as if trying to leave his body). Then his face pales as the blood rushes to other parts of the body, and it takes on the ashen, pallid appearance of a corpse. The difference between actual murder and embarrassment is that in murder, blood actually leaves the body, where as in embarrassment the blood changes location within the body.

    Torah teaches us two things:

    1. If one “sheds the blood of man”- by actually killing him.

    2.even if one sheds the blood “ in the man”-by embarrassing him and causing him to blush and pale, “ His blood shall be shed,” for he has committed a mortal sin.


    • sue swartz permalink*
      06/09/2010 10:37 pm

      Never read Chofetz Chaim, but now I’m interested. Talk about others that serves no positive purpose — that is the best definition I’ve seen so far. Thanks. I’m not sure that I would go so far as to equate actual murder with embarrassment, but I take your point. Words are harmful – and like physical death – cannot be taken back once spoken. Welcome to the blog!

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