Gossip here, dirty linen there &mdash wouldnt life be better without it


Leviticus 14:1-15:33

Kings II 7:3-20

It could have been any of us. Among the major subjects in this week’s Torah portion is the process of becoming a “metzora” and ending that state of being. A metzora is a person who has a special skin lesion often translated into English as leprosy (though not in any way the same as the affliction named Hansen’s disease that is often called leprosy today). Jewish tradition explains that unlike other ailments that were best treated by doctors and through the use of medical knowledge, this was a physical manifestation of a spiritual illness and was attended to instead by the kohen (priest).

What sorts of spiritual weaknesses resulted in becoming a metzora? The Talmud (Erchin 15A) traces the term “metzora” to “motzi shem ra” — one who speaks ill of others.

Thus the gossip and slander that people spread, thinking that it will not come to be known, lands them with visible blemishes and an obligation to be quarantined from others for a period of time. One had to leave the camp for a few days, effectively giving them time to think over how they spoke about others.

You might think that “I’m glad that we don’t have this today,” as so many of us struggle with refraining from relating or listening to juicy stories about others.

Yet, from a different perspective, one might argue that we are in fact far worse off, with no clear system in place to help curb our verbal excess and mistakes. Indeed, the Talmud in Bava Batra (165A) suggests that no one lives life without slipping up in some manner when it comes to talking about others.

So what can we do today to help alleviate the problem?

Recognition certainly makes sense as a starting point. The Torah is communicating to the bearer of gossip that this isn’t simply innocent chatter. Words have an impact and create a reality in the minds of both speaker and listeners.

We also have the benefit of inheriting a tradition of millennia that carefully considered this subject and legislated guidelines to help. One aspect of Jewish law with regard to proper speech is that veracity does not translate into acceptability. Just because what we are saying is true (in our estimation) does not make it OK to share.

Yet even as we make our own efforts to take care with our words, others often put us in an excruciatingly difficult bind by telling us gossip and information about others that we really would rather not know. What to do then?

In the classic work “Chafetz Chaim,” on the subject of appropriate speech, the author makes clear that speaking about others is permitted only when the discussion is intended for a constructive purpose, such as saving another person from harm.

For example, if a friend is considering a business venture with a partner whom you know to be dishonest, then one has a responsibility to offer words of caution. To put it broadly, talking about others shifts from mistake to mitzvah when truly and practically directed toward helping others.

Ideally, people would simply respond to would-be gossipers by stating that they are not interested in hearing about others. That isn’t always practical, and effective approaches that are socially acceptable are in short supply. But guiding the conversation in a constructive direction can be remarkably effective.

When someone begins a story, simply noting that “if you can give me a sense of where this is going or what you’d like me to do, then I’ll be better able to help” (or some similar phrasing) can both indicate to the speaker that you don’t share their interest in minding the business of others, as well as guide them in a constructive direction.

While at first glance it seems foreign, this portion speaks to the stuff of daily life. It is complex and sensitive, and lacks for easy answers.

But imagine a world in which people only mentioned others for constructive benefit — it would be a remarkably better place.

Rabbi Judah Dardik is the spiritual leader at Orthodox Beth Jacob in Oakland. He can be reached at [email protected].