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.
“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).
“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).
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.
“Someone who expresses unsubstantiated suspicions is continuing the work of the primeval serpent, and is worthy of punishment” (Rashi, a well-known medieval Jewish commentator, on Exodus 4:2-3, 6).
“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).
“…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:
Blessed is gossip, because without it we would have no intimate friends–but the Torah of kindness must guard our tongues, as it says in the book of Proverbs: “The Torah of kindness is on her tongue” (Proverbs 31:26).
Reprinted with permission from Journey (Winter 2003), a journal produced by Ma’yan: The Jewish Feminist Project.
Origin: Hebrew, literally “evil tongue,” slanderous speech prohibited in the Torah.
Pronounced: TALL-mud, Origin: Hebrew, the set of teachings and commentaries on the Torah that form the basis for Jewish law. Comprised of the Mishnah and the Gemara, it contains the opinions of thousands of rabbis from different periods in Jewish history.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.