The traditional litany of sins listed in the liturgy for the Day of Atonement includes no fewer than 11 transgressions related to speech and gossip. TMZ‘s Harvey Levin (Jewish) makes a living by publicizing the embarrassing moments in the lives of celebrities. I wonder what kind of confessional he offered last Yom Kippur.
You might say, “These people are wealthy and famous! This is simply the price of fame.” You could also point out the fact that readers and viewers are obviously clamoring for celebrity gossip. Otherwise, paparazzi would not exist and we would all be able to pass through the check-out aisle in our favorite grocery store free from the onslaught of gossip magazines. Finally, you could offer up the (mostly true) statement that we all gossip.
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That said, when we do participate in the spread of gossip and rumors (either about celebrities or our exes), most of us do feel at least a little guilty.
In order to get to the bottom of what Judaism has to say about gossip, I look at two extremes.
This is the approach I take with my middle school students. On the one hand, we have the author of the classic 19th century work on speech and gossip, the Chofetz Chaim. On the other, we have the Talmudic teaching of Rabbi Yirmiyahu ben Elazar.
The Chofetz Chaim generally defines gossip as anything person A says to person B about person C. Whether the words are true or false, positive or negative, or even if the subject would happily share the information, the Chofetz Chaim says that it is potentially harmful and must not be said. Unfortunately, most of us know people who consistently respond to positive statements about others by offering up their own, less-than-flattering reports about them. I personally find this very difficult to listen to.
My students consistently find the Chofetz Chaim shocking and inevitably come up with real-life examples where their teachers and parents are guilty of inappropriate gossip according to this strict definition (parent-teacher conferences). They feel very proud of themselves.
Then I show them the words of Rabbi Yirmiyahu ben Elazar: When one praises another not in his presence he may praise him in full. But in his presence, he should express only a portion of the praise due him (BT Eruvin 18b). This text tells us that we should actually compliment other people more completely to third parties than we do to the actual person. The idea behind this must be to avoid giving the person a big head about who they are.
If one extreme teaches not to ever speak about someone else while the other specifically instructs us to offer full praise of some else to third parties, how do we decide where to draw the line between ethical speech and gossip?
Luckily, we all have a conscience and as we gain life experience we learn what we should share and what we should keep to ourselves. Even the Chofetz Chaim agrees that certain situations require us to share information about others. Giving testimony in a court of law and protecting someone from immediate harm are traditional examples. Some important times to share information about others that I encounter in my job as a teacher include those parent-teacher conferences mentioned earlier, as well as when the law that requires me to report any suspected cases of abuse.
Gossip in Judaism is as old as the Torah (see Numbers, Ch. 12).
It is also shared via every means of communication available to us today, including celebrity gossip shows like TMZ. In order to navigate through the complicated social situations we find ourselves in, we need to use the moral compass that was planted within each of us to determine if the words we share about others cross the line into the realm of harmful gossip or if they are truly appropriate to share.
What do you think?