Last week, as I began my annual exploration of Jewish ethical wisdom on the use of speech, or lashon hara, I found myself confronted with a response from some high school aged students that I hadn’t expected. I asked if they knew what ‘trolling‘ was. One of them responded, ‘trolling is fun. Its fun to get a rise out of someone.’ Upon further probing, the response was qualified. ‘Only if its someone you know well; a friend that you are just teasing, and you know that you haven’t crossed a line.’ ‘How do you know?’ I asked. The answer to that question wasn’t so clear.
It’s pretty clear that Judaism doesn’t like the idea of gossip. In fact, the Hebrew phrase for gossip is “lashon hara,” “the evil tongue.” “The evil tongue kills three people,” the Talmud teaches us. “The gossiper, the person who listens to it, and the person about whom it is said.” (Arachin 15b) As the Rabbis further remind us, in many ways, gossip is worse than stealing, because while you can repay what you’ve stolen, once you harm someone’s reputation, that harm can never be undone.
“There is a time to be silent and a time to speak.” So says the author of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) in a famous chapter that begins by telling us, “there is a time for every matter under heaven.” Yesterday was Tisha B’Av, a fast day which traditionally commemorates the destruction of the first and second temples in ancient Jerusalem and all subsequent tragedies to befall the Jewish people. Last night, as I studied together with congregants, we looked at a story found in the Talmud (Gittin 55b) that attributes the destruction of the second temple to sinat hinam—baseless hatred. The story demonstrates how powerful emotions such as humiliation, pride, shame, inaction, and revenge unleash a destructive series of events on the people. And it all begins with words—an act of speech that contains the power to hurt and to harm in real, material ways. At every turn in the story, the question must be asked, “what if he had said…? What if they had said…? Did they say something in private? Should they have spoken in public?” I am a struck by the complexity of applying the Jewish ethical teachings on
Women and women’s rights have received a lot of attention in politics and media in recent weeks. March is Women’s History Month – a time to celebrate the contributions of women in the USA, particularly contributions to social and economic justice, and women’s rights. How ironic, therefore, that the beginning of March saw a debacle over women’s freedoms to make personal and moral choices about their own bodies. We saw women being silenced through their absence from important conversations taking place in congressional committees, and we heard Rush Limbaugh using crass language to dismiss the perspective of one young, brave woman who offered her opinion.