Harmful & Helpful Gossip

A feminist exploration of traditional teachings on gossip

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"As a community, we must ask what principles or mindset might enable Jewish leaders to turn a deaf ear to young victims and hear only the accused. When the accused is viewed not only as a charismatic leader, but also as a talmid hakham--a Torah scholar--we find that some in our community apply a different standard of accountability. There are several signs of this double standard. One is the accusation that defaming a talmid hakham constitutes lashon hara…." (Blu Greenberg, JOFA Journal, Fall 2000).


Rashi considers the public report of suspicion to be deeply corrupt--as corrupt as the snake in the garden, who accuses God of hiding the truth from Adam and Eve, thus tempting them and causing them to bring death into the world. Anyone who reads the news knows how damaging an accusation, true or false, can be to a family and career. Yet Blu Greenberg, a leading Orthodox feminist, points out that some use the accusation of lashon hara to protect powerful individuals who have sinned against others (in this case, rabbis who have abused young women). Honoring a victim's story is an important step on the path to healing as well as a way of stopping abuse. Sometimes speech about others is an expression of our values as feminists. How can we balance the danger of false accusation with our need to break complicit silence?


"If a man warned his wife [not to commit adultery] and she secluded herself [with another man], even if he heard [that she had done so] from a flying bird, he divorces her and gives her the marriage settlement. This is the statement of Rabbi Eliezer. Rabbi Joshua says: [He does not divorce her] until women who spin by moonlight gossip about her" (Sotah 31a).


"A term like 'gossip,' when used pejoratively to describe communication between women, has tended to isolate them from one another by trivializing their everyday experiences" (from an editorial review of Gossip: A Spoken History of Women in the North in Northern Perspectives, vol. 17, no. 3).


Though Rabbi Joshua comes from a Talmudic tradition that condemns gossip, he wants to use the small talk of women as evidence against another woman who has transgressed. In other words, the "trivial" act of gossip suddenly becomes significant when it serves the needs of the patriarchal legal system to control the behavior of women. The countertext points out that women's informal talk has significance even when "higher" social systems don't deign to notice it--it can be regarded as a spoken history, an information delivery

system that may reveal a different story from the "official" version. John Kennedy has been quoted as saying, "All history is gossip."


"Rabbi Yohanan said in the name of Rabbi Yosi ben Zimra: One who indulges in gossip is guilty of denying the existence of God and God's commands…. Such a one is punished with leprosy" (Arakin 15b).

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Rabbi Jill Hammer

Rabbi Jill Hammer, PhD, is an author, educator, midrashist, myth-weaver, and ritualist. She is director of Tel Shemesh, a website celebrating Jewish earth-based traditions, and co-founder of Kohenet: The Hebrew Priestess Institute. She is the author of Sisters at Sinai: New Tales of Biblical Women (Jewish Publication Society, 2001) and The Jewish Book of Days (Jewish Publication Society, 2006).