Mar 31, 2006


You know what I'd like to see? A renewed interest among Jews, to be sure, but really among everyone, to think more about gossip.

The following is an excerpt from Joseph Telushkin:

"As a rule, most people seem to think that there's nothing morally wrong in spreading negative information about others as long as the information is true. Jewish law takes a different view. Perhaps that's why the Hebrew term lashon ha-ra (literally, "bad language" or "bad tongue") has no precise equivalent in English. For unlike slander, which is universally condemned as immoral because it's false, lashon ha-ra is by definition true. It's the dissemination of accurate information that will lower the status of the person to whom it refers. I translate it as "negative truths."

Jewish law forbids spreading negative truths about anyone unless the person to whom you're speaking needs the information. It's a serious offense, one that has been addressed by many non-Jewish ethicists as well. Two centuries ago, Jonathan K. Lavater, a Swiss theologian and poet, offered a still apt guideline for the spreading of such news: "Never tell evil of a man if you do not know it for a certainty, and if you know it for a certainty, then ask yourself, 'Why should I tell it?'"

Intention has a great deal to do with the circumstances in which it's prohibited to speak negative truths. The same statement, depending on the context, can constitute a compliment, gossip of the nondefamatory sort, or the more serious sin of lashon ha-ra.

Unfortunately, this doesn't deter many people from speaking negative truths. Such gossip is often so interesting that it impels many of us to violate the Golden Rule, "Do unto others as you would have others do unto you." Although we'd probably want similarly embarrassing information about ourselves to be kept quiet, many of us refuse to be equally discreet about others' sensitive secrets.

The injunction against lashon ha-ra doesn't apply only to the use of words. Making a face when someone's name is mentioned, rolling one's eyes, winking, or saying sarcastically, "So-and-so is very smart" are all violations of the law. Since lashon ha-ra is considered anything that lowers another person's status, it's irrelevant whether one uses a nonverbal technique to commit it. Jewish law calls this behavior avak lashon ha-ra (the "dust of lashon ha-ra").

Other examples of such "dust" include innuendo--"Don't mention Paula's name to me. I don't want to say what I know about her." It's equally wrong to imply that there's something derogatory about a person's earlier life: "Who of us who knew Jonathan years ago would have guessed that he'd achieve the success he has now?"

The "dust of lashon ha-ra" encompasses a whole range of stratagems by which people sometimes damage reputations without saying anything explicitly critical. For example, it's morally wrong to show someone a letter you've received that contains spelling mistakes if all you wish to do is cause the reader to have a diminished respect for the letter writer's intelligence."

The catalyst, you see, is that I came to realize just how sensitive I am to it. It's downright hurtful to hear about anyone, but especially about oneself. I've had plenty of things in my life that have been gossipped about and every time, it hurt. It really did. And, perhaps the most frustrating thing about gossip is that when gossip is heard, all too often, it is accepted as truth and never questioned. I wonder how many friendships are denied before they ever begin simply because nobody ever bothered to ask the gossip target if any of it was true?

I have been thinking of this a lot lately because it's remarkable just how much I was hearing in a day. And, I'm far from perfect, and yet so irritated by gossip anymore that I had to make sure I wasn't contributing. So, I have a jar in my cupboard that will get a dollar plunked into it if I think back over my day and realize that I have gossipped. I find it so hurtful, for whatever reason, that I understand why gossip is on par with murder. Both are terribly hurtful offenses and neither can be taken back once they are comitted.

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