Rabbis both old and new have done a pretty good job teaching about the dangers of “lashon harah,” most commonly translated as slander, or malicious gossip. The most common way this manifests itself is when the offending language is being used offstage, behind the scenes, so that the offended party is not aware of it until it comes out in a more public way.
But in his signature work Sefer Shmirat Halashon, Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan, more popularly known as the Chofetz Chayim and a giant of the Musar movement, taught that the issues of how we speak, what we say, and to whom we say it are far more nuanced and complex than we might have at first thought.
As a rabbi, and particularly as a congregational rabbi, I often find myself in situations where people come to me with observations or complaints about other people that fit that classical interpretation of lashon harah that I cited before. Passing along, to a third party, bits of information that are, as often as not, second or third hand transmissions themselves, that may or may not be true, are irrelevant to the rabbi, but make for interesting conversation, serves no useful purpose. All it can do is erode the fabric of a community, and severely compromise friendships and other relationships.
But every rabbi will attest to the fact that the phenomenon of lashon harah often presents itself in ways not as blatantly obvious as the classical formulation. For example, the Chofetz Chayim taught that there are times when even saying something positive about another person can be considered lashon harah if it’s done for the wrong reasons, or compromises that person’s situation by sharing information that is not necessarily public. The greatest of care needs to be exercised when speaking of others, whether positive or negative.
In the matter of lashon harah, I find that even after thirty-five years in the pulpit rabbinate people are still capable of surprising me, proving yet again how easy it is to violate the idea of careful speech.
As I was leaving my office late one night last week, I received a message saying that a woman whose father was dying had called, and urgently needed to speak to me. I had no idea if she was a member of our community or not, but I called her back before I got into my car.
She told me that her father-in-law—whom I happened to know but hadn’t seen in a very long time—was dying, taking his last breaths, and she needed a rabbi to “come there right away.” She confided that she was a Catholic, but she wanted to make sure that she was doing the right thing by her husband’s father. I gently explained to her that while Catholicism’s last rites can only be administered by a priest, there are no “sacraments” that a rabbi alone can perform, and it sounded like her father-in-law, whom I knew to be something of a religious skeptic, was past the point of reciting the “viddui,” or final Jewish confessional. I talked to her a bit about what to do if he died, and ended by saying that despite all that, if she really needed me to come by, I would.
Very quickly, she responded– and this is almost a direct quote; “Oh, I didn’t mean for you to come. My father-in-law didn’t like you. I was hoping you might be able to help me find another rabbi who could come over.”
I must admit that, even upon reflection, I’m not sure what the appropriate response to her could or should have been. Truth to tell, I found myself laughing at the absurdity of our conversation. “Really,” I asked? “You had me call you when your father-in-law is dying in full knowledge that it wasn’t really my help you wanted but someone else’s?” She responded that she was very glad I was laughing as opposed to angry. I really didn’t know quite what to say, because what she had done was so inappropriate in so many ways. After explaining to her that I didn’t have a (digital) Rolodex of rabbis who made such late-night visits to dying people they didn’t know, I wished her strength and made my way home.
For whatever reason, the aforementioned caller didn’t consider it lashon harah to say what she said to my face. I guess she thought she was just being “honest” by speaking with me directly, and what could be wrong with that?
For the record… the rabbis of the Mishnah established long ago that truth telling is not a categorical imperative. On her wedding day, a bride should always be told that she is “na’ah vahassudah” (beautiful and gracious) even if, objectively, she is unappealing. They recognized that her feelings and sense of self-worth on her wedding day were more important than the unvarnished truth. In such an instance, being truthful is more like lashon harah than a mitzvah.
So yes, for the record… even rabbis have feelings. No people, rabbis or laity, enjoy being told to their face that someone doesn’t like them, even if it’s true. Most of the time, that kind of information does not even need to be shared with a rabbi, as passing it along is itself lashon harah, gratuitously compounding the insult. No one enjoys being spoken to carelessly and hurtfully, even if, in some way, they deserve the scolding.
Lashon harah takes many forms, but all of them point us back to a lesson that so many of us heard repeatedly from parents and teachers. If you have nothing good to say, say nothing. You may have to bite your tongue from time to time, but from an ethical perspective, you’re far better off.
Hmmm… I wonder if a certain Presidential candidate reads my column. He could use the lesson!
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.