Monday, June 2, 2008

Courage Under Fire: How a Jew Handles Gossipers


One of the most difficult aspects of Jewish life is dealing with the grave sin of loshon horo (gossiping even when true, tale-bearing). The Chofetz Chaim, author of the Mishneh B’rurah compendium on the Shulkhan Arukh that serves as the defining halakhic work for Ashkenazic Jewry in the modern era, nevertheless attached his name to his other great life’s work – on the laws of loshon horo. He felt that tackling the complexity of loshon horo law was the greater contribution he made in his lifetime. So he took his great sobriquet from a verse couplet in Tehillim (Psalms 34:13-14): “Who is the man who desires life, (mi ha-ish he-chofetz chaim) who loves days to see good? Restrain your tongue from evil and your lips from manipulation.” And HaRav Yisroel Meir Kagan HaKohen, zt”l, took for himself the name “Chofetz Chaim” as the name by which he would be remembered.

The laws of loshon horo are numerous. For example, with Ehud Barak recently having announced that he is seeking to return to political leadership in Israel, it is not at all
loshon horo to remind people of how Israel fared the last time he led the Jewish State. It is not loshon horo to speak of Neturei Karta – the clowns in Hasidic garb who attend Fatah events and Holocaust Denial conferences to ally with our enemies – with the utmost contempt. It is not loshon horo to refer to Jimmy Karta, the 39th American President and a bigot against the State of Israel, with the utmost contempt. When someone inquires whether a fellow or lady is suitable as a pending wedding match or as a business partner, the halakhah permits -- indeed, requires -- utmost candor. There are many more examples of these principles.

On the other hand, in a different context, even a “roll of the eyes” can be a grave sin. Or a smirk. Or a snicker. When the intention is to reduce a person a notch by conveying a negative meaning that is forbidden under halakhah, the conveyor of the loshon horo can lose his place in the World to Come for all eternity. And, for good measure, Rav Avigdor Miller zt”l teaches that the conveyor and transmitter of the loshon horo is saddled with all the sins and punishment of the person he intends to degrade.

The challenge that is most difficult for most of us is how to respond when, unexpectedly, we find ourselves caught in a loshon horo environment. One time, Ellen and I were invited to a Shabbat dinner at someone’s home. Other guests were invited, too. As often happens at a Shabbat table, conversation ensued, shifting from one Jewish subject to another. Suddenly, the discussion moved into laws of kashrut and, from there, into one person’s ridiculing a Rav who grants kashrut certifications. The discussion reached beyond nuanced philosophical differences of rabbinical schools of thought – for example, some halakhic authorities are stricter about Cholov Yisroel than are others – and transcended into loshon horo and, worse, hotza’at shem ra’ (outright slander).

Loshon horo is an infection, very contagious, so much so that it needs to be quarantined. It sneaks into a conversation, often introduced cleverly and surreptitiously by someone whose agenda – whose personal axe-to-grind – manipulates the discussion into that direction. And, as happened that night at that Shabbat table, Ellen and I suddenly and unexpectedly found ourselves embedded in a loshon horo environment. This prominent Rav was being derided and smeared by a person who absolutely did not know what he was talking about. We were caught off-guard.

But what to do? What indeed to do? To make a scene? To break the ambiance? To ruin dessert? What to do? Because, alas, silence is often tantamount to agreement.

In the “Harry Potter” series of children’s books, author J.K. Rowling puts a profound thought into the mouth of one of her characters: “It takes courage to stand up to your enemies. It takes even greater courage to stand up to your friends.” And that is indeed the only prescriptive that exists in the face of finding oneself in that bind.

To speak up – because silence is not an option. To risk losing a friend – because losing Paradise is not an option. To realize that someone willing to jeopardize your place in the World to Come may just not be the best friend in your rolodex.

In the movie “Gentleman’s Agreement,” a 1950s-era Oscar winner as Best Picture for its depiction of a non-Jewish journalist who poses as a Jew in snooty Connecticut and Manhattan to learn from an insider’s perspective that Jew-hatred exists even among the upper crust, there is a memorable scene. A non-Jewish woman, late in the movie, recounts that she was enjoying dinner as an invited guest at a dinner table, breaking bread with such upper crust, when someone started telling anti-Jewish jokes. She angrily recounts the incident later, among a group of people who oppose anti-Semitism, telling them approximately these words: “I was so mad. You have no idea. I was furious.”

And, then, one of those listening to her recount her outrage asks: "Did you speak out? Did you object to that humor? Did you convey your sentiments in any way?” And she responds, her face looking down into her napkin, “No. I sat there silently. I allowed it to continue. I did not have the courage to speak out.”

Loshon horo is the ultimate anti-Semitism, a violation of the essence of Torah values, emanating from within the Jewish community, derogating one or more Jewish souls, assassinating an innocent Jew’s character, causing pain and suffering to its victims and targets, to family and friends. Even as it threatens the eternal souls of those drawn within its ambit, often innocent bystanders caught unexpectedly in the oral terrorist’s cross-fire.

The only way to respond, when unexpectedly finding oneself caught in a loshon horo environment, is to speak out with courage. To say “My spouse and I did not come here to listen to this. Nor do we want our children exposed to this poisonous environment. We reject what is being said. And if it happens again, we will leave this environment and not return.”

That is courage under fire, Jewish-style.

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