Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Complexity of Jewish Speech Ethics

The notion of speech ethics seems to be a counter-cultural concept in this country.  In secular law, the only types of speech that are not tolerated are slander, libel, and harassment.  Short of that, the freedom of speech afforded by the First Amendment protects just about everything else.  In Christianity, the only questions that are asked are is it true and is it pure (e.g., is it vulgar, are you being "nice".....whatever that may entail).  Ironically enough, the only other religion I found, aside from Judaism of course, that deals with some of the quandaries in speech ethics is Buddhism (note the Eightfold Path).

For a man such as the Chofetz Chaim, whose works on Jewish speech ethics is well-known in the Jewish community, he pointed to the fact that לשון הרע destroyed the Second Temple and strongly believed that the Messiah's coming would be hastened by working on our speech ethics.  It's true, in a sense, especially if you think of a world without gossip and what that could bring.  Plus, you have to keep in mind that by reading Genesis 1, G-d created the universe with speech.  If the premise behind Judaism is imitatio Dei, we have to realize that although our words don't create universes, they certainly have a power to build or destroy. 

Judaism teaches us to speak the truth.  To give but one example, Proverbs 12:22 states that "lying lips are an abomination to G-d."  Judaism teaches us to distance ourselves from falsehood.  This seems to be a constant across the Jewish spectrum.  As such, Judaism makes such things as libel and slander forbidden.  The reason to forbid false speech should be self-evident.  But what about speech, even if it's true?  This is where things get complicated because in Jewish law, just because something is true, that does not give us the right to say it.  As we shall see below, speaking the truth is not an absolute in Judaism.

  • "But it's true."  Just because something is true, we should not say it.  The laws of לשון הרע teach us that even if it's true, we are forbidden to say it if it harms, embarrasses, causes financial damage to, or lowers the status of the person being discussed.  As previously discussed, our words have the potential to cause damage.  Furthermore, an individual's concept of truth can be obscured by ego or lack of information that would render their "truth" more subjective than initially anticipated.  Judaism teaches us to be able to not only have the foresight to not be destructive with speech, but to not to use such speech.  Although there are 31 mitzvahs related to speech ethics in the Torah, the big one here is not being a talebearer (Leviticus 19:16).  In Hebrew, the word for talebearer, רכיל, has the same root as peddler, רוכל.  Both of these words have the same root.  Why is this?  Just as a peddler goes from house to house, a gossiper also goes from one person to another "peddling" intimate details to boost their own ego and self-worth.  The notion that gossip is forbidden is foreign to a culture in which gossip is a not only an everyday norm, but is sadly something for which enough people in this country strive.  
  • "The dusts of לשון הרע."  This refers to verbal and non-verbal stratagems that lower one's reputation of an individual.  For example, someone asks you about such an individual.  If your response is "I don't want to talk about him because if I do, I'll speak לשון הרע."  Why is even this forbidden?  Because by saying such, you have lowered the status of that individual.  Even if you sigh and roll your eyes at the mere mentioning of a given individual, you have touched upon the "dusts of forbidden speech."  This would also include praising a friend in front of someone in the event that the listener that would probably take advantage of the praised individual's benevolence.  Even more notably, this would include sarcasm. 
  • Listening to לשון הרע.  This is where it gets complicated.  The Chofetz Chaim sets such high standards in speech ethics that it is even forbidden to listen to לשון הרע.  
  • Speaking לשון הרע about yourself.  You would think that ethics deals with interpersonal relations, you think that you could speak badly about yourself.  Wrong!  Because if you did, you'd violate "Love your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 19:18)."  How are you supposed to love others if you cannot even love yourself?
  • Exceptions to speaking לשון הרע.  The main exception to speaking badly about someone is when not doing so would cause undue harm.  Two examples of this extenuating circumstance are entering a business venture with a dishonest, fraudulent man and marrying a deceitful spouse.  In order to speak לשון הרע, of course, one would need the proof to back it up.  Baseless accusations are falsehoods. 
  • White lies and omitting the truth.  In other religions, lying is lying, no matter what.  Judaism, on the other hand, is surprisingly permissible of white lies.  This is evident with Hillel and Shammai's debate on complementing the bride.  We also see an example of this in Genesis 18.  Sarah is talking with G-d.  G-d tells her that she will bear a child.  Her response?  She laughs and says "After I have withered, shall I again have delicate skin?  And my husband is old (18:12)!"  When Abraham asks G-d what Sarah was laughing about, G-d says "Shall I in truth bear a child, though I have aged (18:14)?"  Notice that when G-d relayed the message, he did not mention Sarah's comment on Abraham's age.  From this, the rabbis concluded that even the Holy One, Blessed be He, modified the truth for the sake of peace (Talmud Yevamot 65b).  Although we do have a precedent for telling a white lie, we have to make sure our motives for doing so are pure.  For instance, you cannot tell a white lie to protect your honor [because ego is in the way] or make a lie about not giving charity simply because miserliness is kicking in that day.  As long as it is done with a good motive, Judaism permits white lies. 
Do you see how complicated this is?  I haven't even scratched the surface of the minutiae involved with Jewish speech ethics.  To learn more, I would recommend anything written by Chofetz Chaim on the topic since he is considered to be the most prolific legalist on speech ethics.  Also, try Positive Word Power or R. Yosef Telushkin's book on Jewish Ethics.   

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