Words can hurt; so can silence
April 11, 2023
It's the sixth day of Pesah. Our mystics creatively read the holiday's name as peh sah, "The mouth speaks." Seder is a night of story, and that story begins with our ancestors' cry. This whole month of Nisan is dedicated to healing our speech. What better time to offer some small teachings about (potentially) harmful silence and harmful speech?
(On a weird gender note, try searching for an image of an open mouth speaking. Notice how many of the mouths depicted are femme / wearing lipstick / somewhat flirty / etc. The image search algorithm seems to have a certain bias -- implying that women sure do like to talk, or something? Wow.)
The subject of lashon hara, harmful speech (literally “evil tongue”) has been floating around my corner of the internet lately, and a friend asked if I had any thoughts to share. I do! I’ve spent some time with this subject, and I hope that my thoughts and citations will shed light rather than heat. Buckle up: this is nuanced stuff, and isn’t easily condensed. First, some definitions:
Lashon hara is true speech about someone that damages the person being discussed. A related term is rechilut, gossip / speaking about someone behind their back. Also hotzaat shem ra, “making a bad name,” slander / untrue statements about someone. All are prohibited by Jewish texts, though slander or defamation is considered to be the worst of the bunch.
There’s a famous story (here’s one version) in which someone comes to a rabbi asking for absolution for gossip. The rabbi invites them to cut open a feather pillow. Once cut open, its feathers are picked up by the wind. The moral of the story is that words fly like those feathers: they can’t be unspoken, including to places the speaker may never have intended.
This Talmud text gets cited a lot: “כל המלבין פני חבירו ברבים כאילו שופך דמים / One who ‘whitens another’s face’ (shames or embarrasses them) in public, it is as if that person shed blood.” (Bava Metzia 58b) In context, it’s part of a conversation about verbal mistreatment. Clearly our tradition does not subcribe to “sticks and stones” etc. Words do matter.
Part of what makes lashon hara complicated is that we’re instructed not to cause halbanat panim / shame even if what we’re saying is true. Remember, lashon hara is presumed to be true speech. But what about the risk of allowing abusive behavior to stand? Is there an ethical obligation to speak in order to protect? (Short answer: yes, I believe there is.)
If someone does something wrong and I call them on it, strictly speaking that is lashon hara. Sometimes both speaking and silence cause harm to the vulnerable, and then we have to choose as best we can. In my understanding (and others, too – e.g. R. Avi Friedman / @AvFriedman) saving others from harm is often the highest ethical obligation.
For more on that, here’s a great summary of the Hofetz Hayim’s teachings on when lashon hara is permissible, maybe even obligatory. We may speak lashon hara (it’s arguable that we must) in order to help others. And, we mustn’t do so lightly. Note that he offers further stipulations, e.g. don’t pass along hearsay, think hard about intentions, this should be a last resort, etc.
Torah tells us not to stand idly by when our fellow’s blood is being shed. (Lev. 19:15) Given Talmud’s understanding of “whitening the face,” we can say: If person A is slandering person B, we must not stand by as person B is shamed. We should name the slander for what it is. And yet if we speak up, there’s a risk of shaming person A for doing the slandering.
(This is part of why the Hofetz Hayim is insistent that one must be ethically scrupulous and ensure that if one is going to speak, the 7 preconditions be met: firsthand knowledge, awareness of Jewish law, private tokheha first, the truth and only the truth, constructive intentions, no other available path, and not causing greater punishment than would a court.)
Torah also tells us to rebuke our fellow when our fellow has done wrong – but not to sin in so doing. (Lev. 19:16) Rashi says the sin, the missing-of-the-mark, lies in offering tokheha (rebuke) in a way that causes shame, e.g. the “whitening of the face.” It’s our obligation to try not to shame others. And it’s also our duty to protect the vulnerable. Sometimes these two imperatives conflict.
Sometimes the obligation to prevent more harm (“Person C, the thing you are doing is hurting me and may hurt others; please stop”) outweighs the obligation to avoid halbanat panim. If by offering tokheha or naming a wrongful act one might protect others from being harmed, speaking up is an obligation. (More on that in this @jdforward piece by R. Mira Wasserman.)
I don’t think there are easy rubrics for balancing the imperative to speak when others are at risk with the imperative to avoid public shaming. I think it’s an endless and necessary balancing act. Much has been written about this – see the resources compiled in The Torah of #MeToo. (Some of the pieces I’ve already linked or cited are included in that collection.)
A false accusation (of wrong behavior) can cause enormous harm. It seems clear to me that slander and false accusations should be named and rejected. To weaponize a false accusation of unethical behavior not only harms the person falsely accused, it also indirectly harms actual victims of that behavior, making it harder for everyone to take victim testimony at face value.
A parallel harm can also be perpetuated by the weaponized accusation that someone is speaking lashon hara. If a tokheha / critique is genuine, then accusing the critic of lashon hara can be a way to silence them. That in turn can shift the focus in unhelpful ways from the critique (which is a legitimate area of inquiry) to the character or motivations of the critic.
We see this a lot in #MeToo contexts: when someone is accused of rape, people often bemoan how the accusation has marred his bright future, ignoring the worse impacts on the person who experienced the rape. Accusing the rape victim of “ruining [the accused’s] reputation” with lashon hara is a way of weaponizing Jewish tradition in order to silence the victim.
R. Mira Wasserman notes that “in today’s climate, to be the object of an accusation is to suffer public humiliation.” I find myself thinking a lot about R. Danya Ruttenberg (@TheRaDR)’s book On Repentance and Repair. What if being accused of doing something wrong could be a springboard to inner change work and the outer work that must follow?
It’s not easy to respond to an accusation in that way. Halbanat panim: the blood drains from the face, the heart pounds, the limbic system activates, anger surges. It’s difficult to breathe through that and reach the other side, and then to look with clear eyes: did I do something wrong? Is there truth in this accusation? What work is there for me to do here?
And of course this too can be weaponized. Imagine an innocent person who is first accused of unethical behavior, and then told that their unwillingness to be gaslit about their own behavior is further example of what’s wrong with them. Any holy teaching can be misused. My hope is that we who are invested in right speech try hard not to misuse this body of Jewish wisdom.
These dynamics come into play in non-#MeToo settings too, of course. Imagine that I know from personal experience that someone is abusive toward employees. I would feel obligated to warn one applying for a job there; otherwise my silence would make me complicit in their potential harm. I would also feel torn about naming it, because I don’t want to engage in lashon hara.
The obligation to protect the vulnerable takes precedence over the obligation to guard my tongue. In a case like that one, I would probably reach out privately to share my own experience as a cautionary tale. I’d have to balance my desire to communicate privately against the knowledge that sometimes speaking publicly is the best way to prevent harm.
And if I did choose to speak publicly about harms I’d experienced, I know I’d run the risk of being accused of lashon hara for saying what happened, and people would question my character and my motivations in speaking. (This is hypothetical! I am not talking about my beloved shul! I’m just trying to show that trying to make ethical choices takes nuance.)
Today we aspire to be aware of power dynamics, and those do matter here. We all occupy different positions of power in different relationships. I can be in a position of power because of my skin (white), and also a marginalized one because of my gender (female.) Or in a position of power because I’m cisgender, and also a marginalized one because I’m Jewish.
Relative power in a relationship can impact how we receive critique / tokheha. The same critique might land differently depending on the gender of the person making the critique or the gender of the person receiving it. Sexual orientation, gender expression, age, skin color, level of education – all of these impact who has the power in any given interaction.
I’m always aware that being a rabbi is a position of power. I don’t think of myself as someone who wields power in an angular or frontal way, but I need to be extra careful. Someone could still experience me as exercising power over them because of my role. And when a spiritual leader causes harm, that harm can be redoubled because of the import of what we do.
I know that if I harm someone, as a rabbi, I risk damaging their relationship not only with me but with Judaism writ large and perhaps even with the Holy One of Blessing. When I comport myself well, it reflects on my tradition. When I comport myself poorly, the same is true. Whether in actions or in words, I owe it to everyone I serve to be both careful and principled.
Like the book says, “Being a rabbi means serving as a Symbolic Exemplar of the best that is in humankind, being experienced and treated and expected to act as a stand-in for God, and a walking, talking symbol of all that Jewish tradition represents.” No pressure, or anything. (Hah.) I know that no one can always live up to that. I also know that it’s my job to try as best I can.
So what should one do if one realizes that one has engaged in lashon hara? Own it, and make restitution, including accepting any consequences. Then apologize, though the relationship might or might not be reparable. Then make different choices in future. (This is R. Danya Ruttenberg’s formulation, based in Rambam; I gave a sermon about it last year.)
That same teshuvah (repentance / repair) framework is also the answer if one realizes that one has engaged in any wrongful interpersonal act. Teshuvah is our constant spiritual and ethical curriculum. Everyone causes harm, and everyone experiences harm. Our task as Jews is to use our tradition’s wisdom in the service of building a world of less harm and more justice.
Judaism instructs us to avoid gossip and lashon hara and especially slander – AND to balance the obligation to avoid shaming others with the obligation to protect the vulnerable from mistreatment. Weaponizing any false accusation is never okay. Neither is weaponizing the language of lashon hara to silence the voice of anyone who’s experienced harm.
This post also exists as a long Twitter thread.