December 23, 2010

The Lowdown on Lashon Hara

[Author's note:  Padawan has also written an interesting article on this very topic, as it has been heavy on our hearts as of late.  Find her article HERE.]

For my own edification and to get things straight in my own head, I would like to ruminate a bit on lashon hara, which is gossip for all us non-Hebrew speakers. A good friend noted the wiki definition and I believe it is worthy of pondering. 

"Lashon hara (Hebrew לשון הרע; "evil language/tongue") is the prohibition in Jewish Law (Torah) of telling gossip. Lashon hara differs from defamation in that its focus is on the use of true speech for a wrongful purpose, rather than falsehood and harm arising. By contrast, motzi shem ra (spreading a bad name) consists of untrue remarks, and is akin to slander or defamation.

Speech is considered to be lashon hara if it says something negative about a person or party, is not previously known to the public, is not seriously intended to correct or improve a negative situation, and most importantly, is true. Statements that fit this description are considered to be lashon hara, regardless of the method of communication that is used, whether it is through face-to-face conversation, a written letter, telephone, or email.

According to the majority of Torah scholars, lashon hara is considered to be a most serious sin. Therefore, they proclaim, how much more serious is such a statement that is false?"

I am struck how this definition is simple and very specific.  The words must be true, which would seem good on the outset, but are tainted by the speaker's "wrongful purpose".  OK, so let's think of an example:  Suzy sees Johnny step on a friend's toy, breaking it accidentally.  Suzy then goes to the toy's owner and tells them the truth in what she saw - however her intentions are not good.  Perhaps she doesn't much care for Johnny, or maybe he has previously broke one of her toys and she would like to take a little revenge.  Whatever the reason, she tells the truth in such a way as to paint Johnny in a bad light (ie. clumsy), trying to cause the toy's owner angst against Johnny.

In this example, all four of the criteria are fulfilled - this would definitely be considered lashon hara (or talebearing), according to the above definition.  It was true, it is said with negative intent, it was not previously known information and it most certainly was not intended to correct or improve the situation.

[As a side note, was including that example on this blog post lashon hara?  It was true (work with me here), and it was made known publicly, and it was negative towards Suzy.  However, the intent of my telling the story was not to cause harm, but to illustrate for the purpose of example and study.  My determination:  not lashon hara due to the intent.]

I have heard a lot of teaching on lashon hara.  But, even with all those sermons, discussions and classes under my belt, I am still a bit confused.  The fact stated in the definition above, that lashon hara must be true, is an idea I had not heard previously.  I have heard it many times in the sin of lashon hara that both the speaker and the hearer are guilty*.  Further, if you feel that someone is speaking lashon hara to you, you should stop them immediately and you are not to, under any circumstances, believe what they are saying is true.  But wait a minute...by definition, what is being said must be true to qualify as lashon hara.  If we are taking the above definition, clearly it must be true. But even that doesn't seem to be the main issue.  It is the intent or motivation of the speaker that lies at the heart of the sin of lashon hara.

[*Which would seem at least partially true, since in the example of Miriam and Aaron gossiping about Moses' qualifications for leadership (due to the true fact of his marriage to a Cushite), the LORD was angry with both Miriam and Aaron.  However, only Miriam was struck with leprosy and put out of the camp for seven days.  This prompted both Aaron and Moses to cry out to the LORD for mercy.  All three were affected by the gossip, but only Miriam bore the consequences.  Can we conclude that this was due to her intentions?  (ref. Numbers 12)]

It would seem that spreading malicious lies about someone does not qualify as lashon hara.  Are you as shocked as I am?  It is still not righteous, as it is a sin to bear false witness against your neighbor, but it would not be lashon hara because of the truth issue.  Also, talking about a situation known publicly, such as things broadcast on the news, or actions or behaviors of others in a public arena, is not lashon hara.  Caution is always advised, however, to avoid less-than-positive intentions.  Discussion of celebrities, politicians or even those in high-visibility positions can lead to mocking, that even in a lighthearted way, can sometimes mask emotions stemming from fear, jealousy, bitterness, hurt or anger.  Perhaps not falling in the lashon hara category, but definitely in the not-loving-your-neighbor category.

Then there is the matter of "bearing one another's burdens".  I have always wondered how in the world we can help carry the burdens of another if we cannot talk truthfully about their struggle.  Have you wondered this, as well?  However, in sharing situations that may not be public, someone may be cast in a negative light.  And what if the 'helper' knows all parties involved, as is often the case in a community or close group of people?  No one wants to be guilty of lashon hara, but we are commanded to help our friends, neighbors and loved ones carry the load of pain, hurt and, well...life.  The only conclusion I can come to is that it comes right back to the issue of intentions.  Do we possess the maturity to know that we all are sinners and fall short of the glory of G-d?  Are we willing to be compassionate to all involved in situations, even those in the wrong?  Are we committed to bringing resolution to the tough problems with love and understanding?  Or is it our intent to cause strife and division by spreading negativity, judgment and legalism?  I think we all know the answers to these rhetorical questions, right?
"Thou shalt not go up and down as a talebearer among thy people; neither shalt thou stand idly by the blood of thy neighbour: I am the LORD."  (Leviticus 19:16)

If you are like me, you have heard many admonitions warning against gossip...so much that you are afraid to say anything about anything.  When there are hurtful and difficult situations happening around us, oftentimes we just don't want to know, shielding ourselves from having to form an opinion.  But, I think it's easier than all that.  I like the first definition above, "the use of true speech for a wrongful purpose."  That is very clear, in my mind.  Personally, if I have the best intentions of edification, clarification, finding solutions and directing others (and myself!) to the One who knows us all, then I think I can have a clear conscience...at least when it comes to lashon hara.  Speaking the truth in love, in all humility and service, with wisdom, maturity, compassion and love for others, is one sure way to avoid the sin of lashon hara.

Just to test our conclusions, let's look at some wisdom Scriptures that directly address the issue of lashon hara, gossip:
The words of a gossip are like choice morsels; they go down to a man's inmost parts. (Proverbs 18:8)

A gossip betrays a confidence; so avoid a man who talks too much. (Proverbs 20:19)

A gossip betrays a confidence, but a trustworthy man keeps a secret.  (Proverbs 11:13)

A perverse man stirs up dissension, and a gossip separates close friends. (Proverbs 16:28)

[I find it interesting that those four proverbs use the word 'man', yet it is typically suggested by teachers I have heard that women are the main source, participants and spreaders of gossip.  I'll leave you to your own conclusion as to which gender trips more often on the sin of gossip.]

In Proverb 18:8, choice morsels might suggest true statements, especially since they are being 'digested' down to our inner most parts, but I'm not completely convinced that one suggests true statements used for wrong purposes.  I would think that untruths could also be digested to the inner most parts.  The next two of those proverbs refer to betraying a confidence - which would be a truth entrusted in private, thus suggesting that the "tale bearer" is telling truths with malicious intent.  Proverb 16:28 shakes me to my very core; how true that is and shows how destructive evil intent can be within a group.  The double whammy of one causing dissension or strife and a gossip (who knows confidences, truths, of close friends) is drama and trauma waiting to happen.  Possibly motivated by jealousy or in a quest for position... yikes!
Do not plan evil against your neighbor, who dwells trustingly beside you.  (Proverbs 3:29)

He who winks his eyes does so to devise perverse things; He who compresses* his lips brings evil to pass. (Proverbs 16:30)  *Is that compressing in a smirk, or compressing resulting in silence, therefore encouraging bad behavior to continue?  Neither would be a good thing.

As for the scoundrel - his devices are evil; he plans wicked schemes to ruin the poor with lying words, even when the plea of the needy is right. But he who is noble plans noble things, and on noble things he stands. (Isaiah 32:7-8)

Lying words, Isaiah says.  Not lashon hara, according to our definition above.  However, you could most certainly say it might be character defamation or slander; which the LORD does not look kindly on, either.
"Do not go about spreading slander among your people. Do not do anything that endangers your neighbor's life. I am the Lord." (Leviticus 19:16)
Yes, He dislikes it enough to use 'command' language.  It must be that serious.

Back to the wiki article, there was more about lashon hara; etymology was discussed as well as sources citing narrative examples from Scripture.  However, what caught my eye was a section outlining exceptions to the definition.  Is there ever a time that it is right to commit lashon hara?
"There are times when a person is obligated to speak out, even though the information is disparaging. Specifically, if a person’s intent in sharing the negative information is for a to’elet, a positive, constructive, and beneficial purpose, the prohibition against lashon hara does not apply. Motzi shem ra, spouting lies and spreading disinformation, is always prohibited. And if the lashon hara serves as a warning against the possibility of future harm, such communication is not only permissible, but, under certain conditions, compulsory."
I would agree with this exception, without a doubt.  However, I would add that if it is necessary to speak lashon hara as a warning, it must be said to the right parties - the ones that have authority to correct the situation or are part of the solution.  In the case of a community or group, that would be the leadership who act as 'shepherds to the flock' and are tasked with protection and guardianship of the group.  They, above all others, must be knowledgeable of situations that could be harmful to everyone.

Alright, so what is the bottom line...the lowdown on lashon hara?  I could sum it up easily and say that evil intent is sinful and destructive, whether it's lashon hara or slander.  Much care needs to be taken to make sure that our motives are pure and that our heart is right before the LORD prior to speaking about or listening to details about situations or people and even more so before accusing anyone of lashon hara.  Yes, situations need to be discussed at times, to give accurate and complete information, to defend the accused, to enable others to make good decisions.  Moreover, bearing one another's burdens (ie. listening to their difficulties or problems, perhaps even to offer good counsel, etc.) should not be categorized as lashon hara if there is no evil intent and confidences are appropriately held when requested.  But even saying all that, it is the Ruach HaKodesh, the Holy Spirit, that knows and keeps our conscience.  Since we are all prone to making judgments and forming opinions, can we trust Him to alert us when our motives are not quite as pure as we would like?  Is He able and willing to call us up short when we are dancing too close to the line, dangerously close to committing lashon hara or slander?

I am of the firm belief that He can and does, but are we listening?

"...But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you." 

(the words of Yeshua haMashiach in John 14:26)

1 comment:

Barb said...

This a wonderful exhortation to examine my motives before speaking. Words are powerful, and can hurt, wound and destroy.

You also clarified Lashon hara for me. This has the effect of taking the "gag order" off so that I can speak of personal situations with a confident without thinking that I am committing Lashon hara.