B. Shira Levine
Navigating new wilderness

Scrolling bystanders, part 2: Mandated mindfulness

This is part of a multi-part series on lashon hara (“evil speech”). Check out part 1 here

OK technically, the kickoff of this series is this “Introduction” post from 2017, which covers some of the basics from the Chofetz Chaim. The post then confidently concludes, “In a series of posts, I hope to explore a Jewish take on modern speech, including pitfalls and opportunities arising from new communication platforms.”

The next installment came a short six years later. With a catchier title. I eventually finish what I start! Alright; I am done being glib.* 

Jewish law contains a massive and comprehensive set of rabbinic prohibitions surrounding lashon hara or “evil speech.” As a Jewish person and someone with a linguistics degree, I cannot imagine that any actual human being could possibly comply perfectly with these laws. Kashrut seems a breeze by comparison, but that doesn’t mean that strict hechsher compliance should be the priority.  In reflecting on why otherwise highly observant Jews might freely transgress lashon hara and similar interpersonal commandments, Yitzchak Shkop in the book To Be A Mentch points out that “Many people think that the mitzvot between man and G-d are just more important than interpersonal mitzvot, which are universal and logical. In their mind, since the mitzvot between man and G-d differentiate Judaism from other religions, they should be given higher priority. Unquestionably, this is fallacious thought, and has no basis whatsoever!”  Skrop also hypothesizes that “habitual violation on a daily basis” is a factor.  He says: “Habits–howsoever onerous–are hard to break and easy to rationalize.” 

But the overwhelming regulatory framework for speech isn’t designed to achieve perfect results, it’s designed to maximize self-awareness, to facilitate harm reduction. Victim centering is characteristic of Jewish law, says Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg in a deep dive on the laws of tshuva in her recent book On Repentance and Repair: Making Amends in an Unapologetic World.

We see this centering of victims in one of the biblical underpinnings of the laws on speech:

וְלֹ֤א תוֹנוּ֙ אִ֣ישׁ אֶת־עֲמִית֔וֹ וְיָרֵ֖אתָ מֵֽאֱלֹהֶ֑יךָ כִּ֛י אֲנִ֥י יְהֹוָ֖ה אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶֽם

“Do not cause pain [verbally], each man to his fellow. And you shall have fear for your God, for I am HaShem, your God.” (Vayikra 25:17, Parshat Behar) 

The above translation, including brackets, is from Artscroll Interlinear Chumash (I just can’t get enough of Artscroll’s interlinear stuff). 

The commentary’s focus on “verbal” harm from this wording is interesting. My understanding is that this is not linguistically required from the Hebrew, which says only “cause pain.”  (While we’re at it, the phrase is also usually interpreted to apply only to “fellow Jews” even though it only says “fellow.”)  The commentary adds: “Someone who embarasses his fellow in public is like a murderer, and will not emerge from Gehinnom.” It includes examples like “It is forbidden to remind people of their earlier sins or of embarrassing aspects of their past or ancestry, or to give advice that one knows to be bad.”

Why is the part about fearing God so important to this verse? Back to Artscroll: “Lest one think that he can easily do so and no one will know that his intentions were malicious, the verse concludes, … God knows what is truly in a man’s heart.” Framed as a guideline, the takeaway from emphasizing HaShem’s vigilance is that we are supposed to think constantly about what comes out of our mouths, even if we aren’t always going to get it right. 

And if that weren’t enough, we are supposed to think about what comes out of others’ mouths constantly as well.  From Chofetz Chaim: A Daily Companion (I’ll abbreviate it as “CCDC” – that’s right, a third Artscroll pub): “the punishment for accepting lashon hara is greater than the punishment for speaking lashon hara.” And this makes perfect sense. With the focus on “causing pain to your fellow,” internalizing the evil speech is the thing that causes the real pain.

CCDC continues: “listening to lashon hara is forbidden even if the listener does not intend to accept the information.” It’s about to get more complicated, of course; “there is a difference between accepting lashon hara and listening with the intention of not believing what is about to hear.” 

What about when we’re mindlessly pawing at screens being fed content by an algorithm designed to stir our emotion?  And if Jewish law centers victims, how do we identify a victim so that we can center them?

Part 3 coming soon.

* speaking of glib, the laws on speech tackle humor too–one we are all working on a lot in my household. Leave it to child-rearing to show you a mirror… my kids were lobbing wisecracks back at their parents before they were out of diapers. Another installment, perhaps.

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.