By Susan Esther Barnes
Last night we observed Shavuot, the holiday during which the Jewish people celebrate the giving and receiving of the Torah. I have read a number of posts online lately about how this holiday is generally not observed by Jews in America, so I was pleased to see a good number of people at the synagogue last night. The tradition is to study all night, but I’m afraid I didn’t even come close to making it that far.
At any rate, there were several different study sessions throughout the evening (punctuated by breaks for ice cream and cheesecake since traditionally we eat dairy products on this holiday), and I was lucky enough to attend a conversation with Rabbi Chai Levy on lashon hara.
Literally, lashon hara means “evil tongue,” and is generally described as gossip, libel, slander, lying, etc. This sort of thing is a big deal for Jews. It is said that God created the world and the things in it by using speech, as in, “God said let there be light and there was light,” and that the world and the things in it can be destroyed using speech as well. So what we do or don’t say can have serious consequences.
Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan wrote a book, published in 1873, on the subject, called “Chafetz Chayim,” or “Seeker/Desirer of Life,” which Rabbi Levy used as a reference for the discussion. The rules regarding lashon hara in this book are detailed, and cover many different situations.
The group last night was quite engaged in the discussion, which covered subjects such as how to respond if someone asks for a job reference about someone else but you don’t feel you can honestly give a positive recommendation, what action to take if you see someone doing something wrong (and how to go about doing it in a constructive way), and what to do if a friend is considering marrying a man and you have heard bad things about him (such as that he is violent) but you don’t know whether the things you heard are true.
Some of it may seem like common sense, but some of it involves trying to strike a delicate balance between protecting the interests and/or safety of an employer or a friend vs. not wanting to say unkind or possibly untrue things about someone else.
Part of what I enjoyed about the discussion was the desire of the people in the room to engage earnestly in the conversation. There is so much lashon hara in the public arena today, with political attack ads, celebrity gossip, and the like. Without discussions like this one, it might be easy to forget that the majority of people truly care about the feelings of the people around them, and want to do the right thing.
We are lucky to be the recipients of a book and a heritage we can refer to when questions about permissible speech arise.