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Friday Night's Sermon: Gossip and Judaism

Some may feel that a sermon about gossiping is redundant. There was a sermon during the High Holidays after all. There are probably a lot more topics that can be covered.

However, consider that during the yearly course of Torah portions, I submit that you can’t go four to five portions without encountering this topic, the idea of LaShoh Harah, “bad tongue”. Why? Because it’s so easy to do, so prevalent and what a great way to seize control and hurt someone without exposing yourself.

Now that may sound very severe, and we’re going to explore that. But first, how does Torah address this?

The idea of gossiping and character assassination is first encountered in the Torah in Genesis, Chapter 38 in the Parasha, “VaYeishev”. Tamar is Judah’s daughter-in-law and her husband dies without giving her a child. Anxious to have an heir, she turns, as was the custom, to her husband’s next younger brother to fulfill levirate. He dies as well. Judah is then concerned that his final son will succumb to the same fate and so refuses to consent. Tamar is undaunted and disguises herself as a prostitute and entraps Judah to fulfill the obligation. Tamar is soon discovered to be pregnant and accused of adultery. Judah finally relents and admits it was him and she is spared. Tamar would rather die than expose Judah, even though she is within her rights. This is our first example of the character of not succumbing to talebearing.

A couple of portions later, we have Joseph. He is now in Egypt and resists the advances of his master’s wife, who being jilted, then lies and accuses him of attacking her. He ends up spending 12 years in prison. A few weeks later into the next book, Exodus, Moses save a couple of Israelites from an Egyptian taskmaster’s attacks by killing him. The Israelites threaten to basically “tell on him”. He now has to leave his home and his people and spend 40 years in exile.

A few portions later, in the Parash Yitro, Moses climbs Mt. Sinai and receives the Ten Commandments. The ninth is “Do not bear false witness against thy neighbor”. This is repeated in Deuteronomy.

The portion after that starts laying out the other 603 commandments, one of which is “Do not talebear”. This is repeated another five or six times throughout the Torah in one form or another.

Finally, we have a discussion of “tzarat”, a skin blemish that resembles both leprosy and elephantiasis. This is the physical manifestation of someone’s impurity who has, you guessed it, gossiped. In fact, Miriam, who has been spreading rumors about Moses’ lack of affection with his wife, comes down with it herself. This impurity confines the afflicted person outside the camp, where they can’t gossip to anyone.

The sages were so impressed with the importance of this concept that they made sure to insert it into our liturgy. At the end of the Amidah, which we recite during our three-times-a-day prayers, we end it with: “Oh, L-rd, guard my tongue from evil and my lips from speaking falsehood. To those who curse me, let my soul be silent.” (Artscroll Prayer Book, Wasserman edition, p. 119)

More on this last statement in a minute.

Unfortunately, our politics has devolved from discussing policy to character assassination. “Fake news” or what used to be called “propaganda” abounds.

People have a taste for rumors and gossip. Why? Consider that it gives people control. It puts doubt in people’s minds and thus give the gossipmonger power. The gossipee is now on the hook to disprove the accusations. But the fact that they even came to the fore has now tarnished this person’s reputation. These comments can have a very real adverse effect on someone’s livelihood. People depend on their reputations to grow their businesses and make a living. The more severe the rumors, the worse the effect on their income.

What can we, as Jews, do to combat gossip? Very simply, as the prayer states, don’t listen. Tell people you don’t listen to gossip. People gossip when that behavior is reinforced by getting attention, and thus power and control. With no audience, no power.

We can also seek the truth. If we hear something disturbing, we can go to the source and check it out. Consider that there are always three sides to a story: your side, my side and what really happened. When gossippers see that you are not reinforcing their strategy, they’ll try to go on to someone who will. If they’re met with disinterest and they exhaust an audience, the issue is put to rest.

The hardest thing to bear, though, is when you are the target. We hear accounts of bullies using social media to destroy someone’s reputation. These cowards are out of sight, not having to confront their targets personally, but do a lot of emotional damage.

It is important to find support. Find people who know you and trust, and whom you can trust, to be an emotional support. It is also important that we always conduct ourselves with the utmost integrity so that these people are not believed in the first place. This is one of the reasons that we have this Torah, this code of moral conduct; if someone tries to defame us, our reputation and character speak for themselves. Similarly, be there to support people who are under attack.

When these people see that they get nowhere with their degradation, they will end up ostracizing themselves, thus coming down with tzurat and having to remove themselves from the community.

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