As potent as story is to enrich life, like Jekyll and Hyde, there is an evil twin on the other side of the coin. Like fire, stories can warm our hearts or destroy lives. This is particularly relevant in the context of the current political climate and the ways some prominent leaders are using their words and stories to create discord.
In my Jewish tradition, the sages have devoted extensive commentary on this subject, defining right speech with the term Lashon Hara, literally translated as “speaking with an evil tongue.” In the 1800s, Rabbi Israel Kagan, commonly known as the “Chofetz Chaim,” published tome after tome detailing and clarifying the laws regarding Lashon Hara. Through the centuries, Jewish sages came to equate this kind of speech with the gravest of crimes, putting it on par with the sin of murder. Judaism views most sins as forgivable, but this one, along with murder, could get you into a heap of hot water in the afterlife.
The first Biblical reference to Lashon Hara is Leviticus 19:16: “Thou shalt not go up and down as a talebearer among thy people.” This was followed by Psalms 34:13-14: “Who is the man who desires life…? Guard your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking deceit.” They even included gossip in this panoply of destructive speech.
What’s most interesting about how the sages tackled this problem is the depth of distinctions they made. They even inveighed against listening to Lashon Hara, suggesting that the act of allowing someone to speak evil of another was equivalent to the speaking itself, and a sin as monumental as the original speech.
The following story perhaps sums it up best. A woman in a village was known to be spreading malicious and false rumors. As much as people resisted listening to these fabricated narratives, they were having an effect. Her words planted seeds of doubt in people’s minds about upstanding citizens. Craftsmen, trusted for the quality of their work, suddenly discovered that people were hesitant to hire them. Faithful husbands and wives were having to respond to accusations of adultery, undermining a mutual trust that had taken a lifetime to build. Finally, the village’s rabbi sent a messenger to the woman, demanding that she report to his study the next morning. Shamefully she listened to the litany of sins she had perpetrated and promised to do a better job of guarding her tongue in the future. Her promise was insufficient for the rabbi. He gave her a task. “Tomorrow morning, I want you to take a feather pillow to the town square, cut it open, and then come back to me.” She was happy that such a simple undertaking was her penance. The next morning, she did as she was told. It was a windy day. As soon as she split open the pillow, feathers were blown into the trees, down the streets, and carried by the wind for miles. She returned to the rabbi, who then commanded her to collect all the feathers scattered now across the countryside. She recognized that this was an impossible chore. With contrition and understanding in her heart, she had learned the lesson that once words departed her lips, she couldn’t take them back. No making amends would make up for the damage done to people’s reputations and livelihood.
The sin of Lashon Hara is particularly true if the things you’re repeating are based on what someone else has said. The Talmud, the body of work that came from centuries of oral teaching, proclaims that “the tongue is an instrument so dangerous that it must be kept hidden from view, behind two protective walls, the mouth and teeth, to prevent its misuse.” Unlike stealing or cheating in which one can compensate someone for their loss, it’s practically impossible to repair the effects of harmful speech. The Talmud says it kills three: the person who speaks it, the person who hears it, and the person about whom it is told.[i]
The guardrails for right and wrong speech are many. For example, you’re not allowed to call a person by a derogatory nickname or by any other embarrassing name, even if he is used to it. (Consider how one leader today makes that a daily practice.) Another example: you may not ask an uneducated person for an opinion on a scholarly matter, thereby drawing attention to the fact that he lacks knowledge of that subject. You may not even compliment a person if you don’t mean it.[ii]
Interestingly, the Hebrew word for gossip is transliterated as “rekhilut,” meaning a merchant or trader. Trading in false or defamatory information about others is made easier in these modern times. Just the press of a button can spread vicious lies around the world, giving them a permanent life on the internet for all to see and read, damaging lives for what might feel like an eternity.
How do we, as a society, manage this phenomenon? Do we post signs on our work establishments reading: Please! No Lashon Hara Here. Or, should we police speech on the web that is hateful and damaging? How do we balance that with our professed commitment to free speech enshrined in the U.S. Constitution? Where are the limits? Should Alex Jones have the right to speak vicious lies about the Sandy Hook massacre that destroy others’ lives to preserve his free speech rights?
This is the crux of the tension between right speech and free speech that all of us must contend with. Should my rights to free speech infringe on others’ freedom to live without harassment and disparagement? It doesn’t appear that we, as a society, are going to resolve this tension in the foreseeable future. Perhaps the best that we can do is for each of us to take responsibility for the words and stories that pass our lips and that we give our attention to. More importantly, we must hold our leaders accountable for their speech. This is not a Jewish issue or a Christian one. It’s an American imperative and crucial for creating a society grounded in decency. The preservation of the soul of our democracy is at stake as we grapple with this challenge. It’s worrisome that many in places of power have figured out how to manipulate us with printed and spoken stories, more aptly thought of as propaganda. We must learn how to inoculate ourselves from these destructive forces, discerning truth from patent lies.
Next Blog: The Problem with Propaganda
[i] Talmud Arachin 15b