Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Gossip Man

I have always in my mind associated gossip with a certain activity that, this being a G-rated Shul site, I can't mention. Let's just say that this certain activity often starts in the teenage years and is usually done alone and in private. I believe the late George Carlin once referred to it as "the sound of one hand clapping".

Before you think I have really lost my marbles this time – let me explain:

When I was younger, I attended a right wing Yeshiva for 12 long years. The Rabbi there condemned (1) gossip (actually lashon ha-rah - not exactly the same as gossip but for our purposes here it will do) and (2) that certain activity I described earlier as both being forms of murder.

I always found that the pairing of those two activities is pretty strange. But since I did not commit both of those acts (and I am not saying which I did) I was relieved that at least I in one regard I was not a serial murderer. Still, I was always puzzled about why Rabbis condemn Gossip as murder. As I left the world of the Yeshiva I was relieved to hear less and less condemnation of “one hand clapping”, but gossip was still attacked
vigorously from all the denominations of Judaism. Why denounce gossip? We all do it in one form or another. Could it be that some Rabbis have a vested interest – that they see gossip as a way in which they themselves might be criticized? Are they interested in controlling discussion among members? Perhaps I am being too cynical. As I said it is puzzling.

My argument is that all gossip is not the same. There is good gossip and bad gossip. Gossiping is a morally complex endeavor that can have significant benefits or negative consequences. It all depends on the content, the context, and the motivation.

Let me give you some examples of different types of gossip. If someone in shul spreads the rumor that I am a Don Juan and have committed adultery - that wo
uld be an example of bad gossip - because it is false and harmful (even if one has to be really stupid to believe that particular rumor and I might even take some small measure of pride that anyone would even consider me a Don Juan).

But what about if someone in shul says behind my back that I am a contrary, argumentative kvetch? Now, even I would have to consider that a true statement. But since some people may think that description is negative (even if I take pride in it) this would be considered by Halacha as lashon ha- ra.

And what if someone states that Harry Perkal is the smartest person in shul? Now that may be considered a positive statement (but clearly false), but many Rabbis still consider that lashon ha-ra. Clearly the first example I gave (Don Juan) is a form of negative gossip, but are the last two examples really so bad? It really depends - on many factors.

In a broader sense, Gossip helps us to learn and establish social norms. It can create and maintain community bonds. In fact, the closer a community is I would argue the more gossip there is. For example, take our shul (PLEASE). Let us say a couple is having trouble with their child's behavior. Is it such a bad thing if some others take notice and happen to talk about it? Sure for some gossipers there may be disapproval and even gloating but for others there may be a great deal of genuine concern. This concern could lead to the community reaching out to help the parents. These are human emotions and actions, and in my opinion, they cannot be legislated in such minute detail.

Gossip can also serve the purpose of sharing valuable information and challenging authority when necessary. Again let us take an example of a generic Synagogue this time. How are regular members going to share opinions about policies and leadership they agre
e or disagree with - unless they talk to each other? And I believe, in any institution, when normal lines of communication between the leadership and the membership break down – gossip naturally fills that gap. I am not referring to unwarranted rumors - just opinions – positive and negative – in general.

I think the problem is that in this case Halacha is trying to micro manage human behavior. Communication between people is too complex to make fast and hard rules about. Let’s consider the Chofets Chaim (a renowned Rabbi living in the early 20th century in Poland). He wrote volumes on lashon-ha-rah in which he went into minute detail about what was and was not permissible. And take it from me - very little is allowed. He was so obsessed with gossip that he practically banned people from talking to each other. I would love to be
a fly on the wall in his home. With all of his restrictions, what in the world did he and his wife find to talk about? Even if the Choftez Chaim asked his wife to pass the salt at dinner, it might be interpreted as criticism – that his wife was a bad cook. Reading the Chofets Chaim, or modern commentators that are influenced by him, is like not being able to breathe. It is suffocating. Well it is almost as bad as telling a teenager that a certain activity is like murder.
So, what's my recommendation, already? Simple. First of all - just relax. Next, try not to create any false rumors. And finally, try to be as compassionate as possible when talking about others.

But in the mean time have you heard the latest about Mr. So-and-so…………?

- Harry Perkal

DISCLAIMER: I am not a Rabbi and so I cannot make halachic decisions. If you are interested in the halachic rules of lashon-ha-ra please consult Rabbi Katz or any Rabbi of your choice.