Friday, October 30, 2015

The Gospel of Lashon Hara

From the Auguts 2012 E-Block.


Recently, on Tekton's YouTube Channel, a rather amiable atheist of Jewish descent remarked that while he often enjoyed my videos, he would no longer be watching because he felt there was too much harsh language used. I replied by noting the use of harsh language in the Bible; to which he replied that in Judaism, there was a law against such things, that he called lashon hara. He then expressed regrets that in using harsh language, Jesus had apparently abandoned those principles. 

I was rather suspicious of this argument, knowing what I do of both the use of harsh language in the Old Testament and as part of the honor-shame dialectic in the NT world. So I investigated the matter, and present the results here.

Not surprisingly, the amiable atheist was engaging in some rather wishful thinking. Lashon hara was for real, to be sure, but there is no evidence of the regulations associated with it existing prior to the Rabbinic Age -- some hundreds of years after Jesus. In addition, its regulations make it quite clear that it could not have existed in the Biblical Era -- or that, if it did, no one paid any attention to it, at least in terms of how the amiable atheist was trying to apply it. Finally, I found that lashon hara was hedged about with certain exceptions and caveats that made it much less prohibitive of harsh language than my amiable atheist indicated.

Broadly speaking, lashon hara referred to slander, abuse and tale-bearing, but in specific terms, it is used to forbid saying, essentially, any bad thing about any person whatsoever, except under very strict standards… even if what is said is true. That these regulations have sometimes gone overboard is shown in that they have been used even to silence those who are victims of abuse, as this comment by Rabbi Mark Dratch indicates:

The prohibition of Lashon Hara (slander, gossip, tale-bearing) is often used as a tool to silence abuse victims and their advocates from speaking out against abusers. “You are not allowed to say negative things,” they are told. “There’s no proof!” “There are no witnesses.” “You can’t make this public.” “Keep the secret! Remain silent!” And so women, girls, boys, and men are silenced and are often unable to get the help that they need or appeal for the support that they deserve. By invoking lashon hara improperly, the community to which they turn not only revictimizes them, but enables their abusers to continue abusing them and, potentially, others as well.

Dratch offers a more nuanced view of lashon hara, but even what he offers is simply not justifiable, if we wish to observe only Biblical authority. The one Biblical basis offered is Lev. 19:16: “You shall not go up and down as a slanderer among your people; nor you shall stand by the blood of your friend; I am the Lord”. This is quite narrow in scope and prescribes only against slander, not all harsh language. Dratch notes, however, that the definitive work on the subject was written by a sage who lived from 1838 to 1933! This alone makes it clear that lashon hara, in its fully developed stage, could not be Biblically justified.
Indeed, Dratch's description makes this quite clear:

The prohibition against lashon hara does not only pertain when one’s intentions are negative, i.e., the discrediting of another’s reputation—to shame him or degrade him; they apply even when one one’s intentions are neutral or one’s statements are merely in jest.

If this is so, then it is painfully evident that lashon hara did not exist in the NT era -- for clearly, both Jesus and the Pharisees engaged in honor contests designed to shame and degrade the other, in order to discredit public reputation.

Dratch then uses an interesting exception; namely, when negative information is used for a positive purpose. He notes an example of another rabbinic commentator, appealing also to Lev. 19:16:

...if he hears that others are conspiring to harm him and have set a trap, and he does not reveal this information to him, he violates that which is said in the Torah, “You shall not stand on the blood of your neighbor.”

Other commentators appealed to by Dratch include preventing financial and personal harm as valid reasons to engage in derogatory speech. Thus, for example:

In applying this ruling, R. Ovadia Yosef, Teshuvot Yehaveh Da’at, IV, no. 7, obligates a physician to report to the Department of Motor Vehicles a patient afflicted with epilepsy in order to have that patient’s license suspended. He rules that this obligation to prevent harm not only overrides the prohibition of speaking negatively about another, but even supersedes the doctor-patient privilege of confidentiality.

Yet another analysis includes exceptions such as protecting others from harm; preventing others from learning inappropriate behavior; shaming the subject into repenting; and clearing one’s own reputation. Certainly, one can argue that when Jesus attacked the Pharisees, it was for an ultimately positive purpose -- stopping them from deceiving others. The same could be said of Elijah confronting Baal's prophets.

But, to be fair, the designated exceptions are hedged about with caveats. For example, there must be no personal bitterness when one uses harsh language, and one should verify facts before speaking. It is clear, however, that the lashon hara regulations are far from being a universal prohibition of harsh language, as my amiable atheist claimed. It is also clear from certain caveats that lashon hara was unknown or ignored in the Biblical world. One caveat reads:

One should first rebuke the transgressor, if possible, in a calm and appropriate manner in order to motivate him to change his ways. Only if one is unsuccessful, may he publicize the misbehavior.

We obviously do not see either Jesus or the Pharisees "calmly" rebuking one another to "motivate" change in each other, nor do we have any hint that Elijah "calmly" pulled aside the priests of Baal to "motivate" them to recognize Yahweh as the true God.

In the final analysis, it appears that lashon hara either 1a) did not exist in the time of Jesus or the Old Testament, or 1b) did not exist in the later forms appealed to by my Jewish viewer; or 1c) existed, but was ignored by even the most pious representatives of Judaism. Given the lateness of sources about lashon hara, and the agonistic nature of the Biblical world, 1a) seems to be the likeliest option.

However, an interesting point is raised by Dratch regarding the limits of Lev. 19:16, which says that slander shall not be repeated among "your people." Of this, Dratch writes:

Those who engage in antisocial or heretical behavior have written themselves out of the community and have no claim on its protection and should not expect its privileges as expressed in numerous interpersonal obligations. Thus, a heretic or morally corrupt human being who has removed himself from the spiritual or social community has no claim on communal charity or aid and is not protected against such violations as lashon hara. In fact, it is a mitzvah (obligation) to speak out against such a person.

If lashon hara was in full force in the Biblical era, then there can be little doubt that the Pharisees and Jesus saw each other as "out of the community," or as heretics or as morally corrupt. By the same token, this would clearly mean that my Jewish contact was in error in his application -- for by any reckoning, YouTube (and many Internet forums) are filled with such people. Further on, Dratch specifically counts persons who perform physical, emotional or spiritual abuse as exempted from the protections of lashon hara, stating: "No social obligation or protection applies to anyone who does not abide by accepted and appropriate societal norms."

Our conclusion: Our amiable atheist friend was misapplying the regulations of lashon hara.

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