Harmful & Helpful Gossip

A feminist exploration of traditional teachings on gossip

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Gossip is “masked” speech–it is defined as gossip only if the individual who is the subject of one’s words cannot hear what is being said. The Bible says “Do not go up and down as a talebearer among your people” (Leviticus 19:16).Yet the word “gossip” comes from the old English word “God-sib”–a close relative bound by ritual ties, a beloved intimate. Some feminist commentaries suggest that, particularly for women, gossip is not as one-sided as patriarchal tradition would have us believe.

Some gossip is simply malicious, but networks of “informal communication” can also work for the benefit of individuals and relationships. I know that my own private talks with loved ones–rants, reflections, and ad hoc psychological analyses–are vital to my mental health. Yet some of my words would be labeled by the sages of Jewish tradition as lashon hara (slander), the deadly “evil tongue”–and as I’ve researched this article I’ve become much more aware of the harm gossip does. What would a Talmud written by women say concerning gossip? Is it bad, or good, or does it depend on context? Here are five rounds of text, countertext, and commentary to help you form your own opinions about gossip and tale-bearing.

Text:

“Rabbi Ishmael said: ‘One who engages in gossip is guilty of a sin equal to the three prohibitions for which a Jew must accept death–idolatry, adultery, and murder'” (Arakin 15b).

Countertext:

“At one extreme, gossip manifests itself as distilled malice…. Often it serves serious (possibly unconscious) purposes for the gossipers, whose manipulations of reputation can further political or social ambitions… gratify envy and rage…. and generate an immensely satisfying sense of power, although the talkers acknowledge no such intent” (Spacks, Patricia Meyer. Gossip. Alfred A. Knopf, 1985, p. 4).

Commentary:

Here, text and countertext agree that gossip can be a hurtful activity. The Talmud’s extreme formulation–gossip is equal to the worst sins–reminds us that the loss of one’s reputation can ruin one’s life. In some places in the world, a woman who loses her “good name” can lose her potential for marriage, her economic security, and even her life. Spacks lets us know that the intent of gossip can be to consolidate one’s own power without extending any power to the other–a deeply anti-feminist motivation.

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Rabbi Jill Hammer, Ph.D., is an author, educator, midrashist and ritualist. She is the Director of Spiritual Education at the Academy for Jewish Religion, a pluralistic Jewish seminary, and the co-founder of the Kohenet Institute, a program in Jewish women's spiritual leadership. She is the author of "Sisters at Sinai: New Tales of Biblical Women," "The Jewish Book of Days: A Companion for All Seasons" and "The Omer Calendar of Biblical Women." She lives in Manhattan with her spouse and daughter.

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