Bite your tongue
by Jonathan Rosenblum
August 1, 1997
Wednesday night an overflow crowd packed the main auditorium of Binyenei Ha'uma and a number of side rooms connected by closed-circuit TV.
Had Sinead O'Connor decided to appear in Jerusalem after all? Was Aviv Gefen extending his visit? Not quite. The program began with 10,000 women reciting Psalms in unison for the victims of this week's terror attack in Jerusalem.
These women had come to listen to a series of speakers exhorting them to improve their everyday speech. (Another 3,500 English-speaking women will attend a similar event this coming Monday night.)
A nonreligious technician in charge of the closed- circuit hook-up expressed his amazement that such a huge crowd would come to hear how far they fall from the Jewish ideal.
'If anyone talking to seculars criticized us like these speakers do,' he commented, 'he would soon find himself on the receiving end of rotten tomatoes.'
Wednesday night's rally was the culmination of a full day of study and reflection on how we should talk to and about one another. That day, a total of 228 classes were offered to both adults and children in 40 Jerusalem neighborhoods. A few of the classes drew as many as 600 listeners; 50-100 was the norm in many neighborhoods.
Such events are not confined to Jerusalem. A similar day of reflection was held simultaneously in Bnei Brak. And this coming Tisha B'Av, the Chafetz Chaim Foundation is sponsoring events in 100 cities around the globe. Last year over 30,000 attended.
Try to imagine another community in the world gathering such a large percentage of its members for the purpose of voluntary self-criticism and character refinement. But even those attending one-day events do not begin to capture the degree to which the purification of speech preoccupies the religious Jew.
Every major Jewish community has daily telephone tapes reviewing the laws of lashon hara, derogatory or potentially harmful speech. The larger ones even have telephone hotlines with rabbis available at designated hours to answer practical questions on the subject.
A children's tape without a track or two devoted to the evils of lashon hara is unthinkable. And in recent years there has been a proliferation of lashon hara groups whose members commit themselves to rigorously avoiding disparaging remarks during certain hours of the day.
HAS the Jewish religious world, then, succeeded in removing gossip from its midst? Of course not. The Talmud says that everyone at least occasionally succumbs to some form of harmful speech.
But the inevitable failures are on a totally different level than in the world at large.
Husbands and wives, for instance, may allow themselves more leeway in venting their opinions of others. But one will not hear two religious Jews sit down together to dissect every person they know, as is commonplace in the outside world.
In yeshivas those who talk maliciously about others are treated as if they had committed the gravest faux pas. Lashon hara is increasingly perceived in the Torah world as an activity for losers Ñ those who can only salve their low self-esteem by cutting others down to size.
Only those who have no ideas, no Torah, no charitable projects to talk about have to speak about others. As the well-known Jewish philosopher Ann Landers is found of quoting, 'Big people speak about ideas, little people speak about others.
In college and law school, the road to social success was paved with witty bon mots at the expense of others, often including one's closest friends.
My favorite law school professor was eulogized by a colleague for having never used his 'prodigious wit meanly: no student embarrassed; no colleague or competitor shown up.' But what was 'truly remarkable' in the context of Yale Law School is commonplace in the religious world.
When religious Jews explain the laws of proscribed speech to people from the outside world, they often find themselves stared at as if they had gone quite mad. What the world views as innocuous is for us forbidden; what is for most people the norm renders one a pariah in a Torah community.
Exposure to the laws of lashon hara has led many people back to religious observance. No other set of laws so highlights the perfection of character at which the Torah aims, or provides such a clear example of the elevation of the day-to-day.
There is no society in the world with such a complex and detailed set of laws concerning proper speech as a Jewish society.
Our sages stress that man is distinguished from the animals by his power of speech, and that the greatest weapon of the Jewish people is their refinement of speech.
How ironic, then, that there is perhaps no society in the world today where public norms of civility are lower than in Israel, and where the quality of public speech so often reaches toxic levels.
The solution will not be found in legislation or more prosecutions for incitement, which will always be in the eyes of the beholder and lead only to the suppression of debate on issues of crucial importance.
Rather it lies with each one of us to become more sensitive to the words that emerge from our mouths, and to their consequences. For that there is no better place to turn than our own classic sources.
Confronted as we are by dangers on every side, we dare not forget the words of Proverbs: 'Death and life lie in the power of the tongue'.
Related Topics: Jewish Ethics
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