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Guarding Against Loshon hora: Speech as the Building Blocks of Our Souls

By Sanford L. Drob

The Talmud teaches that gossip is like a three pronged tongue which kills three people: the person who says it, the person who listens to it, and the person about whom it is said. So strong is the condemnation of gossip and slander in Jewish tradition that the founder of the chasidic movement, the great Baal Shem Tov, is said to have told his followers that the Kosher status of what comes out of one's mouth (i.e., one's words) is even more important than the Kosher status of what one puts into it. Many of the greatest tzaddikim, fearful that they would be led into the transgression of loshon hora (literally "evil speech") cultivated silence as one of their cardinal virtues.

Jewish View of Gossip

When we consider the meaning of slander or loshon hora in Jewish law we may be astonished by its breadth. In our culture we have become accustomed to regarding slander or gossip as the spreading of falsehoods or unverified rumors for malicious purposes. Indeed, American courts recognize "truth" and frequently lack of malicious intent as valid defenses against the legal charges of slander and libel. Judaism takes a completely different view: any negative, hurtful speech about others or even about oneself, whether true or false and whether or not it is spoken maliciously, is regarded as loshon hora and is prohibited. There are very few exceptions to this general statement. Rabbi Israel Meir ha-Kohen (1838-1933), the fabled Chofetz Chayim, taught that the only time it is permissible to speak poorly of another human being is when such speech is absolutely necessary to redress a past wrong or to prevent a future harm. However, even under these circumstances seven conditions must first be met:

The person about to speak poorly of another must (1) have evidence of that person's dishonesty himself, (2) be very cautious and weigh the matter thoroughly before speaking, (3) first admonish the dishonest person himself in a calm, reassuring manner, (4) not exaggerate the offense (5) examine and be satisfied as to the purity of his own motives, (6) try to solve the problem in another way without slander, and (7) be sure that the result of his action will cause no more harm than a court would order if the matter were brought to public trial.

It should be obvious from this brief description of the laws of loshon hora that the conditions outlined by the Chofetz Chayim are very rarely met and that indeed gossip and slander, as defined in our tradition, is a very common thing. It is so common in fact that many individuals in their attempts to bring an end to their own loshon hora soon come to realize that gossip and slander constitutes the majority of their own everyday speech and that a first step in reducing one's propensity to loshon hora is to cultivate silence in those interpersonal situations that are conducive to gossip. Indeed the sages tell us that it is so easy to cause harm with one's tongue, that a person should work to make it difficult for himself to speak. (Chovos Halvoves, Duties of the heart).

Value of Silence

But, one might ask, is silence psychologically healthy? After all, is it not a cardinal principle of psychodynamics that anger must be expressed at those who anger us lest it be turned back against the self; and isn't it the very essence of psychotherapy to unburden oneself of one's anger, one's hidden resentments and one's negative feelings? While unexpressed anger can be turned against the self and lead to depression, there is a world of difference between openly and assertively confronting those who we believe have caused us harm, and going about spreading gossip about such individuals. Judaism asks us to cultivate silence in order to eliminate loshon hora, not to deal with insults by turning the other cheek.

Indeed, it is the very failure to assert oneself against an individual who we feel has wronged or insulted us, that is the source of most loshon hora. It is, for example, when we feel unable to tell a friend or a colleague that he has hurt us, that we are most prone to say negative things about him to others. In fact, a good measure of the degree to which an individual suffers from an assertiveness problem is the amount of loshon hora he or she speaks to others. Assertiveness involves confronting others in a firm but gentle way in private. It secures our own rights without violating the rights of others. Gossip does none of these things. It sidesteps the problem, neither securing our own rights nor respecting the rights of any one else.

It is true that in psychotherapy the expression of a certain amount of negative feelings about others is inevitable. There is a vast difference, however, between expressing one's feelings in psychotherapy and "unburdening" oneself to one's relatives or friends. In the first place, a psychotherapist is an objective observer who is not a participant in one's social system. He or she is unlikely to have any social or business dealings with the people one is speaking about. In addition, a psychotherapist listens to his patient's expressions of negative emotions more as an indication of the patient's own psychology than as a statement about the individuals under discussion. More important than any of these considerations, however, is the fact that in psychotherapy the expression of negative feelings about others is never conceived of as an end unto itself. An individual in psychotherapy is encouraged to ultimately come to terms with past relationships, however painful, and to conduct his or her present life in a manner that does not lead to the building up of the resentments which result in the need to speak ill of other people.

Indeed, as a psychotherapist, I try to get my patients to take a more understanding, therapeutic view of others, to limit their exposure to individuals who repeatedly cause them pain, and to assert themselves directly with friends and loved ones with whom they are in conflict. If after many weeks and months of psychotherapy a patient continues to "unburden" him or herself about the misdeeds and injustices of others, I begin to suspect the "unburdening" and the fixation upon the past, to be a source of the patient's problems rather than an effort towards their resolution.

In The Sayings of the Fathers (Pirke Avos 1:17), we find Rabbi Shimon ha'Tzaddik stating that for his entire life he was in the company of wise men and of all the things beneficial to one's body he found silence to be the best. There are many reasons for this, not the least of which is that when one is silent, one is at least not speaking loshon hora. Loshon hora is both an expression of and a breeding ground for negativity; negativity is at the root of much of what we experience as anxiety and depression; and anxiety and depression have been implicated in a vast number of bodily ills, from heart disease to tension headaches.

Building Blocks of the Soul

"Before you speak, you are the master of your words. After you speak," we read in Orchos Tzadikim (The Ways of The Righteous)," your words master you." How often we feel imprisoned by our own words after we have said something that we don't take to be representative of our true selves. What we say sets up expectations both in others and for ourselves. Chronic complainers, for example, are treated by others as if they are miserable, and it is not long before they begin to perceive themselves this way and actually feel depressed. On the other hand, those who cultivate appropriate silence and the expression of kind words toward and about others are treated by others, and soon come to perceive themselves, as loving individuals with a positive attitude towards life. While this may seem like obvious advice, it is advice that is rarely taken to heart. Our words are in a sense the building blocks of our souls. For most of us, if these blocks are kind and relatively few, the resulting structure will be far more beautiful, healthy and secure.

Sanford Drob holds doctorates in philosophy and clinical psychology. He is affiliated with Bellevue -Hospital and is on the faculty of N.Y.U. Medical Center and the City University of New York.

Sanford Drob's recent publications are Symbols of the Kabbalah and Kabbalistic Metaphors .

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All material on New Kabbalah website (c) Sanford L. Drob, 2001.

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