Slander—the deliberate dissemination of damaging untruths—is banned by Jewish law, but curiously, without solid biblical precedent. Nonetheless, in premodern Jewish society, a slanderer (in Hebrew, a motzi shem ra) was subject to punishment on the basis of rabbinic authority.
We are equally discouraged from engaging in what is known as lashon ha-ra` (“evil speech”), a term usually applied to the spreading of information which, while factually accurate, causes damage of one sort or another to its subject. In fact, on the basis of the biblical ban on talebearing (“Do not go about as a talebearer among your countrymen” in Leviticus 19:16), Jewish moralistic literature attempts to dissuade us from any sort of talk about others, true or false.
There are those who defend what some pejoratively call “gossip” [known in Hebrew as rechilut] as necessary for social cohesion and as a potentially beneficial practice. The literature of Jewish speech ethics, however, attempts to minimize the amount we say about others, even of a complimentary nature, because of the foreseeable and even the unforeseeable ways in which it may cause them to be hurt, materially or emotionally. Therefore, unnecessary gossip is discouraged, and both speaker and listener are considered transgressors. With realism and resignation, however, the Talmud notes that this is one of the forbidden practices committed by each of us on a daily basis.
“Truth is God’s seal” (the image is that of a signet ring), we are told in the Talmud, but one rabbinic midrash or interpretive tale finds a precedent for censoring or bending the truth, in the actions of no less a biblical figure than that same God. In this interpretation, God took care to avoid insult and domestic strife by a deliberate act of misquotation: God told Abraham that Sarah had laughed at the notion that she could bear a child at her old age (rather than accurately reflecting her skepticism at both her husband’s and her own ability to produce offspring in their elder years). Other values as well, such as the preservation of life, “trump” truth-telling, allowing and at times even requiring one to speak a lie for a higher purpose.
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