Gossip has so infected cyberspace that in just a few months, two young students killed themselves because of it. Two weeks ago a Rutgers freshman jumped off the George Washington Bridge after his roommate and another student used a hidden camera to view him during an intimate moment with a man, and stream it onto the Internet for all to see. Before that, a high school teenager hanged herself when classmates mocked and bullied her online. On a lesser scale myriad rumors that circulate constantly through e-mails brand President Obama a socialist, a Muslim, a non-United States citizen, and much else — none of it true.
Our rabbis knew what they were talking about when they said that gossip can kill three people: the person who says it, the person who listens to it, and the person about whom it is said.
Yet, as we launch into the cycle of Torah readings in the synagogue again, I am struck by the gossipy nature of much of our sacred texts. Noah emerges from his ark, plants a vineyard and instantly gets drunk. Abraham pretends his wife is his sister; Sarah becomes jealous of her maid; Rachel favors her younger son; Jacob lies to his father. Even God gets involved in gossip. God eavesdrops on Sarah’s laughter about her old age and Abraham’s and instantly relays her words to Abraham (although omitting her reference to him).
The Talmud, too, has its share of gossip. We read that Rabbi Eleazar ben Dordai frequented prostitutes until he repented and changed his ways. Rabbi Assi left Babylonia for Palestine to escape his nagging, demented mother. Rabbi Akiva’s wife became old and poor while her husband spent years studying.
On what basis, then, do our sages so oppose gossip? The Torah hints at the answer. We see its disapproval of Joseph when he “brought bad reports” about his brothers to their father. We read of Miriam’s punishment with leprosy after she and Aaron gossip about the “Cushite woman” Moses married. Clearly, there is gossip and there is gossip. The “gossipy” biblical stories come to teach us moral lessons or carry forward the overarching narrative of the creation of the Jewish people. They’re written in human terms we can learn from. Abraham and Sarah, Rebecca and Isaac, Rachel, Jacob, Leah people our ethical universe. Because they are so like us, they can lead us almost painlessly into a higher realm of thinking and maybe living.
In our everyday lives, gossip centers around the stories we tell about one another. It conveys knowledge and gives us insight into others and ourselves. Who is ill, who lonely, who in love, who in need of love — they are all seeds for the grapevine, means of connecting with family and friends. A recent study in the Harvard Business Review found that by sharing office gossip employees made personal ties that gave them social and emotional support. In literature, gossip can make the world go round. Take any Jane Austen novel and notice how the gossip throughout shapes the plot, giving the story its power and meaning.
The trouble with my rosy picture of gossip, however, is that a very thin line separates everyday gossip that conveys information from gossip that destroys people. Only a thin line divides family news from Joseph’s “bad reports,” sets apart the gathering of friends on Facebook from the bullying of a teenager on that site, distinguishes between technology used to integrate students into a school and technology used to spy on and humiliate a roommate. The sages understood the dangers of that thin line and built fences to prevent all gossip because of it. They labeled gossip “lashon hara,” the evil tongue, and compared it to an arrow that, once shot, can never be retracted. You can apologize for something you’ve said, but once uttered, or sent into cyberspace, words hang out, impossible to withdraw. So sensitive were the rabbis to gossip that they even opposed praising someone in public lest a listener become jealous and spread mean tales about that person.
The Chafetz Chaim, Rabbi Israel Meir ha-Kohen, the venerated authority on lashon hara, allowed that there are situations when negative information does need to be spread. If a person has cheated another, for example, others should be told and in that way protected. But even then, he formulated conditions for conveying the information. Among them: You need to have evidence of the dishonesty yourself, and not just hearsay, and you need to examine your own motives so that you do not slander someone because of a private grudge.
With technological changes opening the way for new forms of gossip, it’s good to keep these criteria in mind — whether texting one friend about another or vilifying the president of the United States. n
Francine Klagsbrun’s most recent book is “The Fourth Commandment: Remember the Sabbath Day.”