Speaking No Evil is Hard

I spent the better part of my Passover leisure time learning the Chofetz Chayim’s Shmirat Halashon. If you’re unfamiliar, it is a cataloging of the laws of speech which are found in the written and oral Torah. Although I had learned it years ago, I felt like I needed a review. We ended up learning it pretty voraciously; once we started, we realized it was instructions for life, incredibly grounding, and the most helpful text we’d learned in a while.

I wouldn’t say that keeping the laws of speech is easy for me. Sometimes I learn halacha and I’m like, “Yeah, of course, duh.” There are Jewish laws that are easy to keep. Don’t eat creepy crawly things from the bottom of the sea. OK! No problem there! When I see a sea worm, the last thing I want to do is to put it in my mouth.

Lashon hara is a whole other kettle of non-kosher fish, especially when I feel like I’ve been wronged, or I think I’m on the side of truth and justice, or the the gossip is funny or intriguing. It’s prohibited to speak lashon hara about one’s self, so I don’t think I can get into the details of exactly how and why these laws are hard for me to keep. What I can say is that learning the laws of speech has given me an opportunity to look closely at my own behavior online and in real life, and to resolve to do a better job at watching what I listen to, what I believe, and what I say.

I want to share with you some halachot from Shmirat Halashon that spoke to me personally. There is one big caveat, which the Chofetz Chayim issues in the forward to Shmirat Halashon. He says that the whole lot of laws have to be learned and understood together, in context, because any single law taken out of context and “fulfilled” without meeting the specific conditions could be used to justify destructive speech. I also want to clarify that he lists all of the specific conditions for when it is actually permitted (if not specifically commanded) to share and/or believe negative information about another person. We’re not, by any means, commanded to endanger ourselves or others through silence.

A few choice laws that particularly resonated with me, in my own words, in no particular order:

1. Even if you don’t mention the name, if the listener would be able to deduce the identity of the person you are speaking of, it’s still loshon hara. Even if you think that the listener won’t be able to deduce the identity of the person you are speaking of, you could be wrong. My comment: This means a sub-tweet could be loshon hara. It also means that if I want to write about some event or issue in a Jewish community, I can’t avoid speaking loshon hara just by omitting names.

2. Loshon hara is a true statement about others. Motzi shem ra’ is a false statement about others, and is one which serves to defame someone’s character. They are both prohibited. My comment: As someone who seeks the truth and wants to speak the truth, it’s good to know that there is a whole category of truths which are prohibited as loshon hara (unless certain conditions are met).

3. Well-known derogatory information is still loshon hara. Even if it is well-known, it should still not be repeated. My comment: Let’s say a Jew was convicted of a large financial crime, and his conviction was covered by all the major newspapers. Unless there is a constructive reason to discuss the crime, it should not be discussed.

4. It’s still loshon hara even if you’d say it to the subject’s face. You’re also guilty of humiliating the subject if you do in fact say it to his face publicly.

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5. We are always obligated to give a Torah scholar the benefit of the doubt. It is especially severe to speak loshon hara about a Torah scholar. My comment: What if I think the Torah scholar isn’t all that pious? What if I think he is a faker? In short, it’s not my call. I am obligated to give the benefit of the doubt to even an average mitzvah observer. Unless someone is a willful transgressor who repeatedly foresakes mitzvah observance, I can’t judge him unfavorably, and I definitely can’t publicly shame him. Even in the case of a willful transgressor, five conditions still have to be met before I would be permitted to speak against him. Known transgressors are only people whose constant sinning is established beyond any doubt by a beis din, such as an apikoras. It’s not someone who I simply heard some bad things about.

6. It’s forbidden to participate in a dispute by speaking loshon hara. My comment: Aside from the prohibition as discussed by the Chofetz Chayim, the Previous Rebbe quotes his father, the Rebbe Rashab: “Keep away — to the ultimate degree — from a campaign of attack…” (Hayom Yom, Elul 14).

7. Insults are forbidden. My comment: Even if they are funny. Even if I am insulting myself. Oops.

8. You have to fulfill seven conditions in order to relate information that someone has harmed another person. These are the seven conditions: 1. Absence of any doubt about the truth of the incident; 2. Absence of any possible factor to render the action permissible; 3. The necessity to admonish the person prior to relating the incident (which has its own conditions); 4. The narrative must be accurate; 5. You have to have beneficial intentions (again, there are conditions); 6. Another method is not possible; 6. His punishment will be in accordance with Torah law (and not result in a greater loss). My comment: Here is where it gets really tricky for seekers of justice and for folks who want to protect others from future harm. These kind of situations have to be taken on a case-by-case basis, because one size certainly does not fit all. The fact that I want to prevent future harm from being done does not give me unlimited permission to destroy someone’s reputation or ruin their livelihood. There is a big difference between reporting a dangerous criminal to the police in order to protect his current and future victims from further danger, and making an example of someone who I think has done something improper in order to scare others from what I consider to be impropriety.

9. It is forbidden to speak loshon hara about a whole group. My comment: I am not at liberty to write negative things about “the community”, even if I don’t name specific individuals within the community.

10. If it’s possible, avoid sitting with people who speak a lot of loshon hara. My comment: I thought I was judgmental and not nice for instituting a “no habitual loshon hara speakers at my Shabbos table” policy many months ago. Apparently I was not only justified but commanded to do that. We make a special exception for one-time loshon hara speakers: You speak derogatory words about a Rav or Talmid Chacham even once at our table, you never get invited back. No, we don’t think we’re better than you. It’s hard enough to avoid loshon hara and motzi shem ra’ without inviting it in.

11. When in doubt, stay silent. My comment: Having grown up in a culture of “Your silence will not protect you” and “If you see something, say something” and “Speak, even if your voice trembles”, staying silent is counter-intuitive. Silence is the great enabler, isn’t it? Silence is tacit approval, isn’t it? Silence is the boogey-man of abuse survivors. Aren’t I supposed to speak up and speak out at all costs?

Well, no, I’m not supposed to speak up and speak out at all costs. Throughout Shmirat HaLoshon, the Chofetz Chayim repeats these ideas: If you’re not sure about publicizing or believing negative information about another person, put yourself in his position. Would you want those things to be said and believed about you? And what is your motivation for repeating this information? Are your sure it is for productive, and not destructive, purposes?

Knowing when to speak and when to be silent require an ongoing review of the laws of speech, as well as constant, acute self-awareness. To me, it seems like a worthy thing to focus on, since these laws are a blueprint for how to treat others with ahavat Yisrael. I’m not trying to preach. I hope that it is clear that I’ve written about this because what I promised to write about on Hevria is issues of Jewish practice — and this is a big one for me. I wrote about this to hold myself to a higher standard than I was, and I hope you found it helpful. Thank you for reading.