B. Shira Levine
Navigating new wilderness

Scrolling bystanders 3: Truth can’t set you free

This is part three of a multi-part series “Scrolling Bystanders,” covering lashon hara (“evil speech”) and other Jewish laws on speech. Previous installments: Introduction (2017), Part 1, Part 2.

Next we come to the Torah’s prohibition against “talebearing,” perhaps the most commonly-cited biblical verse when discussing lashon hara:

לֹא־תֵלֵ֤ךְ רָכִיל֙ בְּעַמֶּ֔יךָ לֹ֥א תַעֲמֹ֖ד עַל־דַּ֣ם רֵעֶ֑ךָ אֲנִ֖י יְהֹוָֽה׃

Do not go about as a gossiper among your people; do not stand inactive while the blood of your fellow [is shed]; I am HaShem.

(Vayikra 16:17, Parshat Kedoshim; Translation from Artscroll Interlinear Chumash)

In the above verse, I don’t particularly like the translation of “rachil” as “gossip” here, because “gossip” in English implies a level of salaciousness or malice that simply isn’t required for this prohibition to apply. “Talebearing” isn’t perfect either. And though I am not fluent in Hebrew, I find it interesting that other translations do not use this framing at all; “Do not go about as a talebearer among your people” has also been translated as “do not deal basely with your fellow.” 

Regardless, this reference to “gossiper” or “gossip,” like most of the texts about lashon hara, implicitly presumes that the gossip in question is true or at least a genuinely-held belief. As CCDC says, “the recounting of true derogatory information about another is the classic case of lashon hara.” Ergo, there is an entire body of Jewish law that restricts disseminating truthful information

The concept stands in stark contrast to the “freedom of speech” principle to which we Americans are so accustomed, and that juxtaposition is relevant; anyone raised in US culture will have been indoctrinated in “free speech,” and holding ourselves back from speaking “truth” can feel morally repugnant. On social media, for example, individuals who face rejection, outrage, blocking, or having a post removed after saying something vile have been known to wave the “free speech” banner in protest. “Cancel culture” has been denounced as antithetical to free speech (more on cancel culture later). In the modern vernacular, buzz phrases like “live my truth” have been glorified and “silencing me” are pilloried.

Of course, none of this has anything to do with the US constitution, which only protects individuals from government intervention with their speech. But the extent to which it has become an entrenched cultural norm is critical context for the ways in which Americans speak to each other and the lens through which we unconsciously view halachic authority. Under American law and its deeply entrenched culture of individualism, the speaking of truth is viewed as laudable; radical honesty is praised; it is only when speech is false, harassing, or threatening that the law will restrict it, and the standards of proof for those remedies is high. US law and social norms come from a place of “say everything except.” Jewish law is “say nothing except,” permitting speech only when it meets certain standards, and flipping this default rule on its head.  

The other US-individualism-related indoctrination at play in the way we govern our speech is overemphasis on good intentions. When the individual is prized over the collective good, an individual is vested with a mandate to proceed as one wishes as long as we can rationalize a purpose. Inevitably, harm happens; the individualist cultural norm then manifests as a sense of entitlement to “unconditional forgiveness” upon even perfunctory request, sometimes in the form of mere explanation of one’s intentions without apology. Rabbi Ruttenberg pulls back the curtain on this (largely-Christian-inspired) cultural phenomenon in On Repentance and Repair, pointing out the ways in which this entrenched attitude discourages accountability. Forgiveness without repair, she explains, is antithetical to Jewish law, the latter being focused on the harm suffered by the victim; and repair is largely impossible once speech has been uttered (see Introduction). Under Jewish law, good intentions–and to be clear, good intentions established by preemptively cross-examining them to ensure that your only purpose is constructive–are a necessary but insufficient condition for relaying information to other people. 

Returning to Vayikra 17:16, we see this combination clearly. The Artscroll commentary provides: “It is forbidden to tell someone what others have said or done behind his back, if there is even the slightest possibility it may cause ill will.” CCDC echoes (page 228): “it is forbidden to tell a person a remark which was made about him, if that remark will cause him to be even slightly upset.” The verse concludes, like others, with “I am HaShem,” an emphasis HaShem’s constant presence and knowledge of our intentions (see part 2).

Applying this to our screens and feeds, then, if I happen to run across lashon hara, I can’t tell the person, and I can’t tell anyone else, so my hands are tied. The speaker or author of lashon hara made a general statement to the public and not to me personally; for all that person knows, I am unaware of this speech. I should simply ignore it and go about my business, right?

That won’t do, according to this very same pasuk: “do not stand inactive while the blood of your fellow [is shed].” Artscroll commentary notes the significance of these two prohibitions existing in the same breath; “R’Simchah Zissel of Kelm explained, in the name of R’Chaim Volozhin, that the reason those two laws are in the same verse is that when one is required to tell negative information about someone [circumstances to be discussed later in this series] not passing on the information is considered as a violation of not standing active while the blood of his fellow is shed.”

Don’t spread the truth if it might harm someone and don’t be a passive bystander. So what can we do when our feeds spit out evil speech that we didn’t ask for and don’t want anything to do with? Stick around for Part 4 (which may be a bit of a digression for Tisha B’Av) and more.

About the Author
B. Shira Levine writes about Jewish spirituality and observance, parenting, intersectionality, and the U.S. and Atlanta Jewish communities. Views are her own and not those of her employer, synagogues, or any other organization.
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