Lashon Ha-Ra, False and True

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

The Severity and Types of Lashon Ha-Ra

Last time I stopped sort of in the middle to avoid shortening further the shrift I was giving to Rabbenu Yonah’s reasons to see slanderous speech as a spiritual danger (I almost wrote a grave spiritual danger, but is there any other kind?). His fifth reason starts with the pattern lashon ha-ra sets. One who slanders people will eventually speak wrongly of Gd. Tehillim 73;9 says those who speak about the heavens also wag their tongues about the earth (Rabbenu Yonah is assuming they already do so).

Arakhin 15a, a passage he has noted before because it focuses on our topic, points out the Jews in the desert tested Gd’s forbearance ten times, with their fate sealed only after they slandered Gd, said Gd had taken them out to the desert to die there. The punishment was to have happen to them what they had falsely asserted, they indeed died in the desert.

Another passage in Tehillim (50;16-20) has Gd reject evildoers’ discussions of Gd’s laws, specifically evildoers who joins thieves, fornicators, or slander others. Rabbenu Yonah thinks the verse means Torah knowledge will not protect—and is not appropriate for– a ba’al lashon ha-ra, an habitual slanderer, or a meshumad, one who has given up trying to resist, sins of theft or sexual intercourse. We have seen Do’eg before, the attendant of Sha’ul’s who spotted David at the city of Nov; Sotah 21a said his great Torah knowledge did not protect him once he brought about the priests’ death by reporting to Sha’ul how they had helped David, leading to their death.

Rabbenu Yonah anticipates we will challenge him from the same page of Sotah (because who doesn’t know Sotah 21a well), and proactively wonders about the statement there, while a sin can extinguish a mitzvah (lose the reward for it, a complex topic of its own), it cannot extinguish Torah knowledge. His answer is worrying: that’s only for the occasional sinner. A sinner who has cast aside a prohibition can lose the credit for his or her Torah study.

[I have made no bones of my confidence Rabbenu Yonah is strikingly countercultural and relevant to our moment; it is the main reason I was drawn to offering these summaries. Here, his assumptions attack a nonpolitical claim I hear people make, Torah study is always good, will bring people back to proper service of Gd, and so on. Perhaps often, yet Rabbenu Yonah is certain some people have other matters to fix before they can properly learn Torah.

As it happens, Rambam believes that as well, believes a Torah teacher should refuse to teach certain students until they fix aspects of their evildoing, but he is not our focus right now. For Rabbenu Yonah, someone unready to agree slander is wrong, who does not at least try to refrain from slandering others, is not someone who should be learning Torah or will accrue credit for it.]

If You Love Something, Use It Well

So as not to seem to be piling on, I am skipping almost two paragraphs of Rabbenu Yonah expounding on what is bad in slanderous speech. I pick him up again almost at the end of paragraph 210, where he discusses Mishlei 18;21, “death and life are in the hands of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruit.”

To love speech means to make laudable use of it [a subtle point already, to love something means to use it for positive purposes—if I love my car and use it to waste time, that’s not really love, he is saying, because I am turning it into a negative]. Someone who loves the power of speech will want to use it in its most positive ways, to speak only of matters of value, Torah, wisdom, life-counsel, furthering peace among people [a worthy challenge in our times as well], bringing a community to greater righteousness, praising good (because that reminds people of what counts as good), denigrating evil [another lost art in our day, when many people, including rabbis, object to “being negative,” where Rabbenu Yonah—and Rambam!– thinks promoting right must be accompanied by making clear what counts as wrong], to be zealous for truth [need I say more?].

These kinds of speech bring a person endless merits; one who loves the power of speech will use it wisely, well, and positively. To use it in other ways shows a disregard for what is supposed to be an advantage for human beings.

Breaking It Down to Categories

Now it’s time for the different groups of slanderers, six in all. The first are those who speak negatively of others falsely, claim another person has a character flaw or committed a wrong s/he did not. Sometimes it’s the exact opposite, the slanderer says the victim is weak in an area of actual particular strength. The slanderer in this case has managed to land him/herself in two of our terrible categories, liars and slanderers.

Speaking in such ways might also count as shav, a violation of Shemot 23;1, where we are told not to spread shavMishlei 17;4 refers to two types of people who happily listen to slander, evildoers and people of falsehood. Evildoers enjoy being suspicious of upstanding people, like when they find flaws in others and are able to take them down a notch, and will therefore happily believe whatever negative news they hear about others. [He means they just don’t like when others are thought of as good, and are happy to see that they aren’t so good.]

Liars will believe it because they don’t care about truth, so whatever they hear, they pass on, because it might be true [too easy: imagine a world where people spread stories, with no evidence. They may not even insist it’s true, they’ll just say “I heard that,” but with enough repetition, people believe it. Now add the fact that it is false and slanderous information about a good person.]

In discussing this group, Rabbenu Yonah points out accepting the slanderous speech (as if it is true, absorbing it as a part of the way one sees the world) counts the same as telling it, because outsiders who observe the interaction will assume the information is true when they see the listeners accept it as true (the power of the crowd; if everyone agrees, how could they all be wrong? He is reminding us to be careful about what we accept as true, not only what we spread ourselves).

He reads (unlike regular English translations) Mishlei 26;28 as a call for the humble to hate lying.  People not caught up in their personal honor or place in society want everyone to succeed and are distressed when people are embarrassed or shamed.

Truth Is No Defense

The next category, the ones Rabbenu Yonah believes Sotah 42a intended as the group denied any greeting of the Divine Presence, slander others truthfully (if it’s false, they’re already part of the group of liars, so Sotah would not have needed another group). He lays out three scenarios for passing true slander. First, the slanderer can bring it to the person him/herself, note wrongs that person’s ancestors committed (or, if s/he was formerly a bad person, his/her own now-repented actions). That violates VaYikra 25;17, not to taunt fellow Jews verbally.

Using that same information in front of others with the person there adds the element of embarrassing the person. According to Baba Metzi’a 58b, it dooms the wrongdoer to permanent perdition in Gehinnom. Last option is to spread the information outside the victim’s presence, as a way to hurt or ruin his/her reputation, the kind of slanderer who belongs to the four groups.

Even if we see someone sin in secret, might think we have the right or responsibility to alert the public to that person’s wrongdoing, we must remember the possibility s/he repented, and the likelihood others will use this information improperly. We can only share the fact of the sin with wise people who will take the news only as far as it goes, to avoid associating with the person (in whatever ways we are supposed to stay away from evildoers) until we know s/he has repented.

So it’s wrong, but what are its effects on the one spreading the slander? Next time.

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