by R. Gidon Rothstein
Further Forms of Lashon Ha-Ra, and a Reminder of What It Takes to Greet the Shekhina
We’re up to the fourth level of lashon ha-ra, an extension of the prohibition known as avak, the dust of lashon ha-ra. This is also the last post in this current series, so the end has a summary that somewhat stands independent of the content until then. If you can only read one piece of this essay, I guess I’d hope it is that end note.
Lest we dismiss the dust of lashon ha-ra as insignificant, Rabbenu Yonah reminds us Baba Batra 165a says most people take money not rightfully theirs, a minority are tripped up by sexual prohibitions, and everyone speaks avak lashon ha-ra, this “lesser” category of slander.
Avak consists of causing others to speak negatively of someone else, including—per Arakhin 16a—praising a person in front of others. At face value, it’s a strange statement, since we are supposed to praise good conduct, and wise or righteous people; as Mishlei 25;27 says, there is honor into looking into their honorable actions. Evilim (translations of Mishlei use the word fools, but I think Mishlei means it more derogatorily than that) refuse to speak in praise of good. What’s wrong with praising people in public?
The answer lies in the audience. In conversation with a limited audience, where we know all the participants are comfortable recognizing this other person’s goodness, it is laudable to praise wisdom, righteousness, and the people involved. In the presence of someone who dislikes or is jealous of this person, we are supposed to refrain, because that person will feel the need to “correct” the record, to balance good reports with negative ones. Unless the person we intend to praise is so well known for his or her goodness, the demurrer will have no room to speak up, since the assemblage will dismiss the negative claims, and look down on the person who raised them.
One type of avak obligates us to anticipate whether what we say in all innocence might yet lead to negative talk by others.
Slander by Implication
We can also slip into slander with information we might fool ourselves into thinking we meant for the good. Arakhin 15b speaks of a woman who asks her neighbor for a flame from her fire, and the latter says, we don’t have any matches, but go to so-and-so, they’re always barbecuing (implicitly tarring them as gluttons). Mishlei 27;14 says praising someone loudly can be a curse, with Arakhin giving another example, a guest who speaks of how well s/he was treated, bringing down an avalanche of guests on the gracious hosts.
Further, Rabbenu Yonah thinks we must avoid the suspicion we are sharing prohibited slander. Such suspicion, too, counts as avak lashon ha-ra, close enough to slander to be forbidden as well.
Rabbenu Yonah recognize he had previously promoted denigrating determined evildoers—he gives the examples of someone who brazenly takes others’ money, damages others or distresses them, embarrasses others in public, or speaks lashon ha-ra. In all these cases, where the sinner refuses to change, apologize, or atone, he had said it was permitted, nay proper, to ensure others know their faults.
However, says Rabbenu Yonah, that was only after remonstrating with the sinner, in the hopes of convincing him/her to change paths. After doing so, the person now has a reason to alert others to the sinner’s status as obstinate evildoer, yet has to worry the listeners will suspect s/he had not done the necessary first step, will object that this should have been shared with the sinner first.
Worse, they may think the speaker would never do that for fear of damaging that relationship, a kind of hanifah, the person papering over an evildoer’s deeds when speaking to that person, then telling others how bad s/he is. Listeners will think this person is thus both a hanef, who refuses to give up a relationship by remonstrating, and a speaker of lashon ha-ra, spreads negative information inappropriately.
Arakhin 15b sets a rule, therefore, to only publicize negatives about someone after having remonstrated with the subject (and, I assume, makes clear s/he has done that when telling others about it). Reputation can help; someone known to not be the type to overlook others’ wrongdoing for the sake of personal or political gain can also share news without worry s/he will be suspected of mishandling the information. As a third option, public knowledge—according to Arakhin 16a, as soon as three people know some fact about someone else, because we expect it will spread from there—no longer counts as news this person is sharing, it’s just well-known information.
To care about lashon ha-ra means to care about the impression as well as the reality.
Shabbat 33a says whoever is menabel et piv has life turned against him/her, even if until then the person had been so meritorious as to have had seventy years of good fortune decreed for him/her. Yeshayahu 9;16 says Gd will not have joy or compassion for those He ordinarily would, because they are hanef, do evil, and all mouths speak nevalah, leading Gd’s wrath to continue.
Rabbenu Yonah has not yet defined what counts as nivul peh, this befouling of one’s mouth. He says the person has foregone busha, which usually means shame, and tzeniut, modesty or discretion, two defining traits of the Jewish people, and instead has walked the paths of brazenness, characteristic of vulgar people.
Second, Jews’ actions always reflect on Gd, as it were. Devarim 4;6 says people will look at Jews and say they are a wise and insightful nation, where the speaker of nevalah has chosen to act in ways polite society and wise people find distasteful and distancing. [This was written in a time when polite society and wise people rejected the unrefined speech of the uneducated.]
Further, such a person wastes and debases his/her intellect, a tool s/he could have used to achieve knowledge of the most sublime issues and topics.
Listening to nivul peh isn’t much better, because each person would be required to reject the vulgar talk and separate from those who speak in that way.
What is this vulgar talk? Pesahim 3a points out the Torah on one occasion went out of its way to speak of animals that were not tahor rather than use the word tamei, ritually impure, to teach us to avoid speaking negatively where possible. While the Torah does use negative words other times, Rabbenu Yonah thinks the lesson was already taught, we are to use refined language, even if it takes a bit longer.
Keeping track of our way of speaking also enhances our odds of avoiding lashon ha-ra and finding needless fault in others, because care about our speech in one area translates into care about our speech in general.
Torah study has a competing value, brevity, because Hazal assumed teaching concisely made it easier for students to absorb and retain the ideas. In that context, a teacher might not be required to speak circuitously to avoid negative language. [A topic of its own, the balance between brevity and clarity; a soundbite is more memorable, but does not capture nuance, and Torah teachers need to strive for both.]
Overall, to avoid nivlut ha-peh goes beyond not using foul language, involves speaking with the kind of refinement high society adopts [sadly, today much of high society has relinquished this value], to remind us speech is a valuable tool, to be used for good and not evil.
By now, we realize Rabbenu Yonah includes in his “lashon ha-ra speakers” those who misuse the power of speech in all ways, because all speech is connected, loose or inappropriate speech of one type leads to the other. His last category includes those who always find fault, can always see where others speak or act wrongly, regardless of those others’ motives, always see the worst in others, are sure any slights are intentional, etc. It fosters enmity, strife, and dissent, breaks up friendships and society. Fault-finders also tend to be ungrateful, find nefarious ulterior motives when others do them favors, and will therefore act in kind, do bad where a return good was proper.
Nor do such people restrict themselves to human interactions. They also find fault with Gd, treat Gd’s kindnesses and blessings as negatives and punishments, as the Jews did when they heard the spies’ report, taking Gd’s great favor of the Exodus as a way to kill them.
Here endeth Rabbenu Yonah’s third sha’ar, without any summation or closing. But I need one, because I had specific goals in reviewing these texts.
Speech and Character: Crucial to Jewishness, to Gd’s Service
I started this project because I live in a time when Jews concerned with Gd’s service, who put great time and effort into study of Torah and performance of mitzvot, seem to me to have lost sight of how significant character is in our Jewish approach to the world.
As we have just started the month of Adar, the month of Purim, I am drawn again and again to Mordekhai’s words to Ester: if you don’t act now, salvation will come to the Jews anyway, but you and your family will be lost. The job of Jews is to act properly, as Gd wants, not to guarantee particular outcomes.
Rabbenu Yonah wrote long before our time, yet made a point of reminding us of the Gemara’s certainty that how we speak to and about each other, how we use speech to promote good values or not, in some senses matters more than the specifics of halakha. In his view, losing one’s share in the World to Come seems less of a loss, great as it is, than never being among those who greet the Shekhina, the Divine Presence. And that latter category consists wholly of people who speak wrongly—deny value in the world, lie, paper over others’ wrongs, slander others, and all their subcategories.
Which would be more important to Rabbenu Yonah, in other words: making sure the Jewish people got political goods they wanted, or reminding ourselves of the importance of speaking truthfully, in a refined way, in the name of the values we attribute to Gd, such as compassion and empathy?
Unfortunately, over the past five years (and counting), Orthodox Jews have over and over opted for the former, supporting politicians (and I do not mean only Donald Trump, although he is clearly included) whose personal conduct—in particular, speech–clearly disqualifies them for leadership positions.
[They have done it either by straight up falsehoods, such as denying Trump sexually assaulted women, or that he lies all the time; in the last few weeks, I had an email exchange with someone who insisted Donald Trump has a better character than Joe Biden, to me an example of how far hanifah can take us. I pointed out to him that he could have said Trump has a worse character but he supports him anyway because of what he does for Israel, but he was insistent.
Others do it by drawing the falsest moral equivalences—all politicians lie, all politicians are sexual predators. There is unfortunately some truth to that, but when some politicians step far beyond those already insufficient norms, as Trump certainly did, it bears notice. We objected when people pointed to instances of the Israeli military acting too brutally as if it in any way matched Palestinian terrorism, but many have done the same with Trump all along, equated his wrongs to those of Hilary Clinton and/or the current president.]
I brought Rabbenu Yonah to your attention in the hopes of waking us up from this nightmare, where deep Torah values are thrust aside for slaking our thirst for political victories. If you have comments, I am always open, my address is my first initial, the first six letters of my last name, at gmail. Next project is the Peri Megadim’s Petihah Kollelet, politics-free, I promise. See you then.