Michael Harvey
Michael Harvey
Rabbi | Advocate | Educator

Gossip and Insults in Judaism

Lashon Harah, loose talk, evil speech, lying speech, gossip, whatever it is called by the sages, is known as one of the most damaging sins one can commit in Jewish thought.  One need only skim through the pages of the rabbinic works to find the weight of this sin.

Resh Lakish said “one who slanders makes his sin reach unto heaven”

Rav Chama Bar Chanina said, quoting from Proverbs, “What is the meaning of the [verse] “Death and life are in the hand of the tongue”?  Does the tongue have a hand?  This verse tells you that what the hand can kill, the tongue can kill as well!”

From the Talmud: “The School of R. Ishmael taught: Whoever speaks slander increases his sins even up to [the degree of] the three [cardinal] sins: idolatry, incest, and the shedding of blood.”

The mystics were no less stringent on the sin of lashon harah, as the Zohar states: “God will accept repentance for all sins except one: giving another man a bad name.”

The Talmud states, “wronging by words is a graver offense than overreaching in matters of money…for the latter can be made good by restitution, whereas the former cannot.” So, wronging someone by words, by offending them, bringing up their weaknesses, embarrassing them, is not only an ethical violation, but according to our commentators, when one does so, they break a holy law, a mitzvah handed down by God.  The Talmud has a great deal to say on speech that is abusive or hurtful, including that one who engages in this kind of speech, in doing so, denies the existence of God to which God declares, “I and he cannot live in the same world.”

There are pages and pages of quotes from the rabbis and commentators up until present day discussing the damage slander and gossip can cause, with some saying it can lead to death, is tantamount to murder, and, as we have seen, one of the only sins deserving of a divine plague.

The power of gossip is a difficult lesson to learn, even with all of these prohibitions from our sages.  That is why, when I am asked to teach on the subject, I always begin with a story:

The story is of a man who took to slandering his rabbi, going around his town telling lies and negative impressions of him.  Eventually, the rabbi sat the man down and explained that lashon hara, slander, is like murder, it murders the reputation of a person.  Caught in his acts, staring the rabbi in the face, the man began to feel guilty, and asked what he could do to rectify the situation.  The rabbi asked the man to go home, take one of his feather pillows, and stand on a hill that overlooked the town.  “Rip open the pillow,” the rabbi commanded, “and shake the feathers out.  Then come see me tomorrow.”

The next day the man returned to the rabbi’s office, and reported that he had indeed taken one of his feather pillows, stood on the hill, ripped it open, and shook out the feathers into the wind.  “Good,” said the rabbi, “now, I would like you to go and collect every one of the feathers, and put them back into the pillow.”

“I can’t do that!” the man replied, “surely the wind has taken some of them all across the town, and I will not be able to find them!”

The rabbi stared at the man, saying, “so it is with lashon hara, with gossip and slander.  Once you send these evil words into the community, there is no way to undo the damage, no way to reach all those who have heard it and spread it.  It is because of this that gossip and slander are like murder.”

But we live in a time wherein people engage in this kind of speech quite frequently; to one another, to leadership, to their constituents.  We know that when our fellow Jews do this, when they offend, embarrass, or highlight weakness in us, that they are breaking commandments and violating Jewish law.  And that’s all well and good, but what are we, who are the victims of these vexing words, to do about it?
There are many schools of thought on this, and I wish to highlight just two of them.  The first is to simply ignore the words being hurled your way.  This view is by an Israeli Orthodox rabbi, born in the 1970s, Yoshiyahu Yosef Pinto, who explains it in this way:

Most praiseworthy are those who remain silent when insulted, as also those who do not hit back when humiliated by a friend’s rebuke for some misdemeanor.  But their silence is not due to fear of the friend but to the love of God Whose creatures he does not wish to humble.  Moreover, he happily accepts the humiliation in atonement for his sins; to such people does the verse apply: ‘Let them that love God be as the sun when it comes out in its might.’

Rabbi Pinto says that we should remain silent when insulted, and if we feel humiliation, we should think of this as retribution for any sins we, ourselves, have committed.  This is a rather Deuteronomic view, that any calamities that we experience are divine punishments for sins perhaps we have not even known we have committed.  We should smile in the face of insults, knowing that God is attempting to humble us, and in showing love to God we should accept this punishment and grow from it.   There are a great deal of Jews, and members of many religions, who think this way. And, while nice in theory, I believe is almost impossible in practice. Indeed, these days, we can even see the danger in this type of view. It seems that not a week goes by when I don’t hear about another beautiful, promising young person who has taken his or her own life because of the harmful words thrown his or her way. In too many cases, you read that no one knew how sad the young person was, because he or she never discussed the words, or seemed to smile in the face of them.

For this reason, the second school of thought rings closer to my views.  The 13th century Spanish work Sefer haHinukh comments directly upon the commandment discussed tonight, not to “wrong another,” with the “vexing words.” It states the following:

This commandment […] would not require us to remain silent when annoyed, for no one is made of iron.  Furthermore, silence may imply an admission of the accusations. Indeed, the Torah does not expect us to be inert, to equally accept insults and praises. Rather we must refrain from reviling and initiating quarrels.  Thus, one can avoid being offended, for only the mindless would revile an amicable person, and these can be ignored. When compelled to react to insults, the intelligent will do so gently and without anger, ‘for anger rests in the bosom of fools’ (Kohelet 7:9) […] Such is the conduct of the virtuous.

It then continues:

In my opinion, the Torah actually teaches that it is permitted to react to insults; it even permits to kill in self-defense (Ex 22:11 & Rashi’s comments).  Just as one is not obliged to suffer damage but may take steps to prevent it, so also may one effectively defend oneself against injurious talk.

It seems that in the 13th century, the commentators had a strong understanding of what vexing words awaited us in the 21st century.  It states that we should not remain silent when insulted, when embarrassed, when humiliated, because this might lead to others believing it to be true, and that we should acknowledge that we have feelings that can be hurt; but at the same time, Sefer haHinukh tells us, we shouldn’t be offended but that we should consider the source, as “only the mindless would revile an amicable person.”  In other words, the fact that a fellow Jew is spending time, working hard to insult us, to embarrass us, to bring out our weakness, reflects so poorly upon them, that we should view them as “mindless,” and overlook these vexing words, responding to them as we would to a child.

While this, too, is no easy feat, it does seem healthier for all parties, then simply ignoring what is happening or, worse yet, thinking what is happening is somehow deserved. Thus, I think it would do as all well to adopt what author and entrepreneur Seth Godin calls “The Toddler Strategy.”

“Most people don’t get too upset at anything a two-year-old kid says to them. That’s because we don’t believe that toddlers have a particularly good grasp on the nuances of the world, nor do they possess much in the way of empathy. Mostly, though, it turns out that getting mad at a toddler doesn’t do any good, because he’s not going to change as a result (not for a few years, anyway). Couldn’t the same be said for your uninformed critics? For the people who bring you down without knowing any better, for those that sabotage your best work, or undermine your confidence for selfish reasons? It’s hardly productive to ruin your day and your work trying to teach these folks a lesson. Better, I think, to treat them like a toddler. Buy them a lollipop, smile and walk away.”

I’ll be sure to write to Seth to let him know that his teachings reflect the rabbinic works of the 13th century; but more importantly, we should remember that there are two sides to the breaking of a commandment: the person who breaks it, and the rest of us who are forced to respond.  So much emphasis is put on how we should follow the mitzvot, live lives according to the commandments in the Torah. But we must also give attention to how we should respond when those around us break our sacred laws, especially when it directly affects us.  According to the sages, as well as some modern thinkers, if we dwell upon the heartless, thoughtless insults of the uniformed or the gossip about us, we are wasting our days. This does not mean, however, that we simply ignore them or, worse yet, somehow think we are at fault.

Rather, we should recognize the words for what they are–misplaced, misguided, misinformed–and then, and only then, smile and walk away. Or perhaps, if we’re really feeling snarky, to those who utter those words, give a lollipop.

About the Author
Ordained rabbi and social justice advocate with extensive experience serving congregations and leading large-scale community change. Published author who concentrates on bringing deep Jewish understanding to the lay public. Doctoral student with a focus on how Jewish philosophy can drive social justice work in the United States. Passionate Jewish educator using innovative teaching methods to reach unaffiliated Jews. Founder of "Teach Me Judaism": educational and animated Jewish lessons on scholarship: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC4vNAB0lVE4munW_znGdEtQ
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