by R. Gidon Rothstein
The cause of awareness of lashon ha-ra as an halakhic precept was certainly greatly advanced by R. Yisrael Meir Kagan’s attention to it in Hafetz Hayyim, Shemirat Ha-Lashon, and other writings, almost to the point of obviating our interest in Rabbenu Yonah’s version. Not quite, though, because Rabbenu Yonah is a rishon, from an earlier and more authoritative time. In addition, the context of Rabbenu Yonah’s choice to review them, these being groups of people who will not merit welcoming the Divine Presence, sharpens our focus.
Slander With No Personal Benefit
Rabbenu Yonah leads off with a statement from Arakhin 15b, telling lashon ha-ra carries the stench of denial of Gd, because the slandering another damages the victim (loss of job prospects, business deals, personal relationships, and more), often with no profit to the person spreading the tales.
Some slander is for personal profit. Tehillim 54;5 says the Zifim (who revealed David’s location to Sha’ul at one point) did not consider Gd when they did it. Midrash Tehillim there says they did it to curry favor with the king, expecting he would dole out some boon for having turned over the son-in-law he was chasing. In the name of that hoped-for gain, they ignored the Torah’s declared curse on one who damages another in secret, Devarim 27;24. Gd’s Will did not matter, because they thought Sha’ul would give them something they wanted.
On the other hand, Tehillim 52;4-5 describes Do’eg–who told Sha’ul the priests of Nov had aided David during his escape– as one who prefers evil to good, opts for lies over righteous speech. Midrash Tehillim thinks the verse castigates Do’eg because he had no need of favors from Sha’ul, was independently wealthy. He did it out of love of evil for its own sake.
Thieves steal for the money, adulterers for the physical pleasure, slanderers (in Rabbenu Yonah’s view) do it for fun. In paragraph 201, he says it constitutes heresy because the person who speaks this way assumes the right to speak at will, when this same person would be sure of his/her obligation to make use of other body parts only as Gd commanded or allowed. Such a Jew knows to avoid nonkosher foods, for my own example, yet thinks speech is not governed by Torah law. Tehillim 12;5 expresses the attitude, in Rabbenu Yonah’s not fully literal reading, “our lips will defend us, who is master over us?” The person should have instead thought about Gd and Gd’s commands.
Other sinners yield to temptation with regret, fully aware of Gd, committed to following Gd’s Will, overcome by lusts or appetites. [He seems to reject the possibility of a psychological push to slander qualitatively similar to physical desire. In our more psychologically focused times, we might imagine such people and therefore spare them the heresy piece of Rabbenu Yonah’s idea. These people we imagine would know it is wrong to slander, want to follow Gd’s laws on slander, and find themselves irresistibly tempted, regretful during and after. As we continue, we will see Rabbenu Yonah implies the act itself also seems enough to put someone in the camp of those who will not merit greeting the Shekhina, regardless of motivation.]
Lashon Ha-Ra As Bad As…
Arakhin 15b says slandering others rivals three significant other sins in severity, worshipping powers other than Gd, engaging in prohibited sexual acts, or committing murder. Each of those has the exceptional quality of yehareg ve-al ya’avor, a Jew must forfeit his/her life rather than transgress, as Sanhedrin 74a teaches. Arakhin points to the use of the word gadol, great, in the context of each those as well as for improper speech, in Tehillim 12;4.
Arakhin speaks of shekulah, equals; Rabbenu Yonah takes it to mean slander is worse than the three (I think because it equals all three, in his reading). He wonders how that could be when Hullin 5a says agreeing to the existence of a power other than Gd counts as denial of the entire Torah. He offers six answers.
First, those who speak wrongly likely do so much more often than those who commit other sins, and repeated violations of an ostensibly lesser sin can become worse than one instance of a very problematic one. Arakhin meant the slanderer, who has lost control of his/her speech, who will litter it with slander throughout the day, is equivalent to the other sinners, because they will fail themselves less often. (Rabbenu Yonah notes he is not considering the meshumad, who has abandoned observance. Any such person will likely violate those other three sins with similar regularity. The slanderer would not be worse than they.)
The Challenge of Teshuvah
The next three items have to do with the challenges in recovering from a life of slander, finding the way to repentance. First, the habit of slander is hard to kick, the tongue taking on a life of its own, leading the person to always think in terms of what bad news to spread. Kohelet 10;12 says a fool’s lips will consume him. Mishlei 18;7 speaks of a fool’s mouth being a source of fear, because s/he has lost control of it.
We get hooked, he is saying. We also tend to minimize the significance, excusing ourselves with the idea it is “just” speech. Until and unless the sinner realizes how much damage speech causes, s/he has no avenue to the needed repentance, whether because s/he will not repent at all or will do so insufficiently [remember, the whole third sha’ar of Sha’arei Teshuvah builds on the premise an accurate awareness of the severity of the sin is indispensable to reaching the required intensity of repentance for atonement].
Rabbenu Yonah throws in what seems like a side point in paragraph 206, a slanderer will eventually strike others physically as well. He points to the example of Do’eg. When Sha’ul’s other servants refused to execute the death penalty on Nov Sha’ul had declared, he turned to Do’eg, who did it.
[He doesn’t say why he puts this here; I suggest he links the tendency to minimize lashon ha-ra to it then leading to worse actions. Because the person dismisses the slanderous speech as no big deal, repents insufficiently or not at all, acting on the ramifications of that speech will also seem less problematic than it should. When Sha’ul says to Do’eg, you reported it, now you act on the report—similar to an idea Rashi says about Pinhas before he killed Zimri, that Moshe told Pinhas since he had remembered the halakha about killing someone fornicating with a non-Jewish woman, he should enact it– that made sense to Do’eg, because he had not understood how wrong the speech was.]
Reconciliation as a Prerequisite for Kapparah
Fourth of the reasons lashon ha-ra is so bad—and Rabbenu Yonah has not yet started on dividing up the types of people who slander others—is how hard it will be to fully repent, which involves asking forgiveness from each person hurt. [Before Gd absolves of sins we commit towards others, we must apologize to and secure forgiveness from those others.]
The slanderer first may not remember all the people maligned, and will be embarrassed to approach those who had not heard of the slander. Lashon ha-ra in this sense is like an arrow, the victim finding him/herself pierced by a shot without knowing who shot it. Were the victim of lashon ha-ra present at the time of the crime, s/he might have aroused some compassion in the aggressor. Hurting a person face to face (with a sword, for Rabbenu Yonah’s example) at least gives the victim a chance to plead his/her case.
Slander also can affect future generations, although the slanderer will neither know of the need nor be able to ask them for absolution [imagine if future generations of the Obama family were dogged by doubts about whether they are “really” American. Or, for those who watch movies, the premise of National Treasure 2 was a descendant’s burning desire to clear an ancestor of a slander about his role in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln]. Yerushalmi Baba Kamma 8 says there is no way to full atone for casting aspersions on a family.
The force of habit plays a role as well. The habitual slanderer will eventually also slander truly righteous or sanctified people, because once the sense of wrong is lost, there will be no boundaries on it [Dear Abby column where she wrote “a man who cheats on his wife, no matter who she is, will cheat on his wife, no matter who she is.” I have no idea if she is right, or even generally right, but I think Rabbenu Yonah is saying something similar about lashon ha-ra. A Jew who gets used to slandering others, no matter who they are, will slander others, no matter who they are].
But slandering righteous others crosses the line into apikoros territory. Today, we often use the term for someone who lacks proper faith, where the Gemara used it about a Jew who acted disrespectfully to Torah scholars. For Rabbenu Yonah, slandering those for whom a Jew should have awe counts as a sort of apikorsut, losing that Jew his/her share in the World to Come.
Slander, so far, is a sin often committed without the excuse of expecting personal benefit, tends to happen often, increasing its severity, presents challenges to repentance, and feeds on itself to commit worse sins as well.
Next time, he will open with other faith ramifications of yielding to the temptation to slander.