Harmful & Helpful Gossip
A feminist exploration of traditional teachings on gossip
"…The gossip I call 'serious'…. exists only as a function of intimacy… Its participants use talk about others to reflect about themselves, to express wonder and uncertainty and locate certainty, to enlarge their knowledge of one another" (Spacks, p. 5).
Rabbi Yohanan claims that gossip is rebellion against meaning--that those who gossip deny both the existence of the Divine and the commandedness of moral behavior. Patricia Spacks, however, asserts that some kinds of gossip occur precisely to create meaning--to discover wonder in the world and to "locate certainty"--that is, to reflect on central values. Sometimes, gossip can have good consequences. What if, when we planned to speak about a third person, we asked ourselves: "Will what I plan to say create meaning or destroy it? Will my words strengthen my sense of God's presence, or weaken it?"
"A large portion of our brethren will not eat without washing the hands… however, in the case of gossip, a grave sin, they will trespass easily" (Rabbi Israel Salanter, quoted in Revered by All, p. 184).
"Thomas suggests the Airmont Diner [a non-kosher restaurant] for lunch, halfway between my house and the office. I watch the cars as we walk to the door, hoping no one I know is watching.… 'The problem,' I say once we're inside, 'is that this place is right smack in the middle of town, and everyone gets into everybody else's business. If someone sees me here then they'll tell my parents and maybe my parents' rabbi and then all hell breaks loose. Someone will tell my sister's principal and she'll get kicked out of school, my brother will get kicked out of school, no one will want to marry them and my parents will blame everything on me. I'm not sure one cup of coffee is worth all that.' Thomas thinks I'm insane" (Eve Rosenbaum, "The Word," in Yentl's Revenge, Seal Press, 2001).
Both Rosenbaum's funny short story and Salanter's despairing admonition remind us that gossip is a part of our Jewish lives. We fully expect that rumors will spread through our social networks as quickly as ripples in a pond--even if we come from communities where gossip is considered a sin. A woman's critique of the traditional Jewish view of gossip would point out that forbidding gossip restricts women from needed intimacy and sharing. A Jewish critique of feminist analyses of gossip would assert that permitting gossip leaves groups and individuals open to attack in the most vulnerable areas of their lives. Perhaps a synthesis of these two views would be similar to the traditional view of the yetzer hara, the evil intention. An ancient midrash says about our darkest urges that they are blessed, because without them we would have neither sex drive nor ambition--but that those urges need to be controlled by the Torah. Maybe a women's Talmud would say about gossip:
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