When I first started college, I had spent that previous two years being very vigilant about not saying lashon hara. When you don’t speak lashon hara, it generally avoids you. And when you are part of a community that is equally vigilant about this mitzvah, you can spend months without hearing a single critical word spoken about another Jew or the community as a whole. So I rarely remember encountering it.
Then during my first Shabbos on the college campus, I had a discussion with a friend who started criticizing the Jewish community. I don’t remember what she said, but it jarred me. “Is she saying…lashon hara?” I thought. I was completely aghast. And yet it wasn’t mean or pernicious badmouthing of another person, like I had been accustomed to in high school. It was honest criticism, and actually quite true.
I realized that there was a strength in being able to offer that criticism — it showed a kind of independence of mind, which I envied at the time. I very tentatively began to engage in this kind of lashon hara; criticizing the community on real grounds seemed like a necessary part of being a mature person.
But this week I was contemplating the parsha — specifically, the tzara’as (leprosy) of Miriam. Way back in Tazria-Metzora, I heard Rabbi David Fohrman suggest that the root words of tazria and metzora (z.r.a and tz.r.a) are related. Many root words with two common letters share similar meanings, with the third letter adding slight differentiation.
He suggested that the metzora (the leper) is like the object of the tazria verb (to give birth) — in other words, a metzora is like one who has been born. In this past week’s parsha, that comparison is strengthened when Aharon begs on Miriam’s behalf. “Do not let her be like a dead one emerging from it’s mother’s womb.” He compares Miriam, as a leper, to one who is born — but born dead.
I started thinking about what might be the connection between the metzora and the stillborn? How is saying lashon hara, or the consequences of saying lashon hara, like being born?? The feeling that I had about my friend’s justified criticisms shed some light on the question.
We tend to think about birth as a positive thing. From the mother’s perspective, all that waiting is over and you finally get to meet your baby. To birth your child is a huge accomplishment and culmination of a long, and often difficult process.
But for the baby, the experience is a little more mixed. The baby is breaking away, being cast out of his mother’s protective womb. He is losing the perfect connection that he has enjoyed with his mother since conception. He feels the cold of the world for the first time. He cries. It is painful.
Nonetheless, we also understand that this painful breaking away is necessary. In order for the baby to individuate and live his own life, he must leave his mother. Without being born, we cannot become our own people.
Could the person speaking lashon hara be experiencing something similar to birth? What I saw in my friend’s criticisms of the community was also a kind of breaking away — a kind of individuating.
I think that when we speak lashon hara, we are looking for a birth-like experience; we want to strengthen ourselves as individuals. We pull away from the community, and view it as an outsider who is able to cast judgment. “Look at me,” we say, “I see my own community objectively. I see problems in my own people. I am not blinded by my attachment. I am my own person.”
In this way, the experience of saying lashon hara is almost an empowering experience. And though it doesn’t feel quite right, something about it also seems perfectly natural to us mature, thinking adults.
However, the Torah warns us that some forms of birth are too much. Breaking away from the mother is good, but some connection needs to remain. The mother still needs to nurse and nurture us. When we break away from our community by speaking lashon hara, we go too far — we break away too much, and the result is stillbirth. This is a kind of individuation which kills us rather than empowering us to live.
Like it or not, our community is our mother. For centuries, Jewish community has protected and nurtured us, and kept our people thriving against great odds.
I sometimes imagine my life without Jewish community. What would I do if I were struggling financially? What would I do if I were struggling emotionally? Who would I reach out to? Who would I rely on? The community is a womb for us, it holds us and protects us.
Still, it is important to break away from this womb in certain respects. Each us of needs to claim our own share in the Torah, and to forge our own path in life. To cleave eternally to the community and never find a unique voice would be a great loss.
Nonetheless, in forging that unique path, I think it is important for us to remember not to break off too harshly. We do not want to have such a traumatic birth, that we are harmed in the process.
This may be what the comparison of Tazria-Metzora, illuminated by this week’s story about Miriam, is warning us. The metzora’s punishment is to be cast out of the camp, which is no surprise. By removing himself from his people through his criticisms, he has already taken himself outside the camp. While it is easy to criticize our community, would we really want to live outside it? I know that I would not.
In light of this, I am considering the unique challenge of journalism and blogging within the Jewish world. How can we improve our community without falling prey to the excessive individuation of criticizing it? Are all the criticisms that we (and I include myself) level against our community truly necessary? Could there be a better way?
I would love to hear your thoughts.