"Loshon Hara", an Evil Tongue or Ugly Gossip
It has been said that there is a crime worse than murder. That seems a gross exaggeration. Yet, consider this. Suppose someone comes to kill us. We can run away, fight back or call for help. But when we are the target of character assassination we cannot do anything because we do not even know we have been “murdered”.
The Jewish sages teach us: “Three sins are punished in this world and, further, the sinner loses his portion in the world to come - idol worship, forbidden (sexual) relations, and murder. But loshon hara is equivalent to all of them.” Further: “Anyone who speaks loshon hara denies Hashem.” Further they teach that loshon hara kills threefold. It kills the speaker, it kills the listener and it kills the victim.
Now let us say you are a secular Jew and have no interest in beliefs concerning the world to come, etc. You cannot therefore deny that evil gossip aimed at others or ourselves is a terrible thing and that loshon hara is in fact punished in this world because the evil gossip gains a bad reputation for himself. Even worse, the victim of evil gossip loses his self-confidence when confronted with derogatory lies about him. He becomes what the gossips say about him because his self-image is ruined in the light of the hostility and negative evaluation he faces on the part of others. Study social psychology or read Martin Buber about this. Another good source is George Herbert Mead.
Now what is meant by loshon hara? The Rambam (Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, 1135-1204) teaches that even when we say something about another which is not quite loshon hara, it becomes that because it is passed on from person to person until it is grossly exaggerated.
Recently we discussed the great Rabbi Kagan, also known as the Chofetz Chayim, the name of his most famous book. Therein the Chofetz Chayim devotes himself to teaching Jews to avoid malicious gossip at all cost. He lists 17 prohibitions one might transgress by evil gossip. The rabbis held that to speak ill of others denies Hashem altogether for G’d did not give us a mouth in order to slander but to praise others.
There can be little doubt that evil gossip is most common in the workplace because there jealousy is so rampant. I know a scholar who has written 65 books. Yet, some of his colleagues say that he wrote the same book 65 times. This despite the fact that this man has written on military history, sociology, anthropology, nursing, etc.
Of course, bosses and teachers and rabbis must call attention to failures, shortcomings, poor performance, etc. We also have to supervise our children and point out their mistakes. However, this must never be done in a malicious manner. We do not call a child a thief because he took money from his mother’s purse. We say: “It is wrong to steal and I don’t like what you did.” We do not say, “I don’t like you.” There is a great difference. This has to do with the self-image issue we discussed earlier.
Likewise, a manager or a teacher must evaluate the work of an employee or student. This can be done positively. For example: “You did achieve 65% on your exam and that shows that you know something, but let us see what can be done to improve your score the next time because almost everyone else did better than you.” “Let me help you.” How’s that as compared to: “You flunked.”
Jealousy in the work place is a true nightmare. We know so many people who were literally driven out of their jobs, their career and their future earnings by malicious gossip and jealousy driven loshon hara. This includes professionals, business people and co-workers everywhere. To ruin another persons livelihood is in itself a great crime. Failure to help someone who has been a target of such innuendo is nearly as bad. Yet, we are sorry to say that even Jews who have been victimized by anti-Jewish bigots are seldom helped by the Jewish community. On the contrary. I have witnessed Jews, driven by jealousy, siding with our enemies against other Jews.
Now we Jews know more about loshon hara than anyone. We have been the target of the most insane, outrageous lies for centuries. We are accused by the Moslem world of drinking the blood of children, of poisoning the water supply, of causing AIDS, of ruling the world, of being communists, of being super capitalists, of spreading or even being a disease, etc. etc. etc.
These accusations never cease. Yet, we must withstand them and we do this best by ourselves refraining from loshon hara.
Of couse a good deal of malicious gossip is related to our intolerance of differences. Sociologists call this “ethnocentrism”. We cannot stand that someone else has an accent, or behaves in a manner reflecting a different culture, or wears a beard and payes (ear locks), or does not wear a beard and payes, or is a Reform Jew, or is not a Reform Jew, or votes wrong, or has “politically incorrect” opinions, etc. etc. Who is there who can sit in judgment of others? Of course we can object to what someone does. But we cannot object to what someone is. We do not know anyone so well as to judge his whole person, his thoughts, his motives, his past, his experiences. Therefore, we cannot speak evil of anyone.
In addition, we see that those who constantly speak loshon hara must believe that they are surrounded by inconsiderate, miserable and awful people. The whole world of the gossip consists of people who are negative and worthless and intolerable. Now what kind of a life is it if we have to live in such a world? Yet, the world can be a glorious place if all we see are kind, friendly, helpful, intelligent, loving people. We do make the social world ourselves, don’t we?
Now you may object and say that those who lived and died in Naziland could hardly have seen anything positive there and then. If you believe that, do read a book by the Jewish Viennese psychologist, Viktor Frankl. It is called Man’s Search for Meaning. Frankl survived the concentration camps of World War II and, believe it or not, found something positive even in that experience. (Go ahead. Turn off the TV. Get the book from the nearest library and enjoy a great experience).
In view of the arrival of our New Year, this reminder concerning loshon hara may seem appropriate only if the writer had not done this himself. Of course that is not so. This writer has often spoken loshon hara. Nevertheless, we can make a resolution to refrain from now on. Let it be our only resolution and we will do well the next year. Be strong. Be happy. Be glad you wake up in the United States each morning and have a great New Year.
Dr. Gerhard Falk is the author of numerous publications, including Grandparents: A New Look at the Supporting Generation (with Dr. Ursula A., Falk, 2002), & Man's Ascent to Reason (2002).