Jewish law requires us to treat our words with utmost reverence, imposing stringent limitations upon what we may say. We must avoid lashon hara or “evil tongue,” disparaging another person.  Talking about another person may also be forbidden as rechilut or “tale-bearing,” best understood as stirring the pot, e.g. “Person A did X thing,” where another person is the arguable victim of X thing) even if true, non-derogatory, well-intended, non-confidential, in the presence of the subject, or the same thing the person would say about herself.

The sages treat lashon hara as akin to murder and some sources view listening to it as even worse–quite the wakeup call to the many non-murderers who commit these transgressions daily.  The majority (65% or more!) of human conversations center on other humans’ actions.  I find this unsurprising.  What the heck else is there to talk about?  The weather?  (Personally, I have been known to detest small talk and other interactions devoid of depth, though others enjoy it.)  Psychologists agree that having meaningful conversations about shared experiences is therapeutic and build bonds with others.  Other Jewish values–finding truth, building community, saving lives, keeping the peace, avoiding embarrassing others–further illustrate the complexity involved in steering clear of the “evil tongue.”

This generation has experienced a communication revolution.  We video chat. We can always be reached, and we always know who’s calling. We boil our thoughts down to a  handful of characters in a text or tweet. We convey tone through tiny icons.  We receive news instantly with push notifications to our phones.  We can share our experiences immediately with large numbers of people.  We never have to lose touch with anyone we meet, and we ourselves can never disappear. We can assume anonymity, allowing us to violate the norms of civility without attribution or recrimination.

An overwhelming barrage of information and infinite opportunities for us to publish and communicate, tempts us to speak whatever our hearts deem noble and true–but veracity and a virtuous purpose alone (though required) do not render speech proper under Jewish law.  Rather, Judaism focuses on the impact of our words over what was in our heads when we uttered them.

A Chasidic fable provides an illustration: it recalls a man seeking forgiveness for lashon hara, whose rabbi asked him to cut open a feather pillow and scatter the feathers to the winds.  After the man did so, the rabbi then asked him to collect the feathers.  Words, like feathers, spread far and wide as the wind blows; after we unleash them we cannot control their path or retract them. The harm associated with lashon hara is damage to the subject of the speech–to her reputation, to her finances, to her emotions. For rechilut, it is in the hatred or anger it causes between the listener and the subject.  Neither good intentions nor truth can undo or assuage harm caused once disseminated, and both may be distorted in the process of disseminating it.

The Chafetz Chaim–a primary authority on ethical Jewish speech–sets forth specific preconditions under which a statement that would otherwise be forbidden lashon hara or rechilut could be permissible. Summarized, these are:

  1. The information must be true and based on firsthand knowledge–no rumors/hearsay
  2. Objective certainty that a wrong has occurred, after thorough reflection; considering also whether there is an actual danger from not speaking.
  3. Before speaking in a way that reflects negatively on a person, approach the subject directly first, in a gentle and empathetic manner
  4. No exaggeration–description must be truthful and objective, without presenting selectively
  5. Pure intentions–the speech must accomplish a legitimate goal, and in speaking, that goal must be explicitly stated.
  6. Last resort to achieve the purpose–exhaust other options
  7. No unnecessary damage–minimize the harm caused, including avoiding identifying specific individuals and keeping information confidential to the extent consistent with the above.

How can we transpose these fundamentals onto our new digital reality? In a series of posts, I hope to explore a Jewish take on modern speech, including pitfalls and opportunities arising from new communication platforms.  Some topics I expect to address:

  • Online journalism – sensationalism, “fake news,” propaganda
  • Humor – snark, sarcasm, and satire
  • Blogging and social media
  • Short-form e-communication – texts and tweeting
  • Anonymity, online harassment and bullying
  • Political engagement online

Thanks for joining me in this discussion!