The danger of just talking

It’s out of my mouth before I know I’ve said it.
October 1, 2014

It’s out of my mouth before I know I’ve said it. Only right afterward do I recognize the feeling of giving in to the urge to say something I shouldn’t, something that is mean, judgmental or just not mine to tell. When I hear my husband or a friend repeating what I shouldn’t have said, I protest: No, no, I was just talking. I didn’t mean it. 

Torah cautions the children of Israel in Leviticus 19:16 not to be tale-bearers. Talmud considers lashon harah, which means “evil tongue” and refers to gossip or slander, to be as bad as murder, adultery and idol worship combined. Speaking negatively of others — even when what you say is true — or listening to someone else speak negatively without protesting is a sure way to lose your place in the olam habah, the world to come.  

If you don’t have something nice to say, come sit by me” is not what Jewish educators call the Jewish Way. It’s good to be reminded of this as we engage in self-reflection during the High Holy Days. 

Rabbi Gabriel Botnick of Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills likes to tell the Chasidic tale about a man asking his rabbi how to repair damage caused by malicious gossip. The rabbi tells the man to take a pillow up on the roof, shake out all the feathers and then gather them all in again. Like the feathers, words let loose can’t be called back. (Some rabbis teach that, to be on the safe side, we shouldn’t talk about other people at all.) 

Words are powerful in Jewish thinking. The world itself was created with them. The Targum Jonathan (an Aramaic translation of Torah) calls the very breath that made the first human come alive a “speaking spirit.” We have a holy book and a holy language. Discussion, between study partners or over centuries, is at the heart of our spiritual practice. Vows of silence are rare in Jewish tradition. 

In the ultra-Orthodox world, where children learn to be very careful about lashon harah, this can create confusion about “telling.” Is it OK to report a bully? Someone in power being inappropriate? In more liberal circles, there is a caution about who can use what language. Some words are off-limits for some people. All denominations recognize the power of words and struggle with how to use them for good. 

So how am I supposed to know when I am using them for good? My hunger to be in the know, whether it’s mean, judgmental or just the urge to share a good story, often sweeps right over my urge to be kind, modest or temperate. 

The 19th-century Lithuanian rabbi Israel Meir Kagan, known as the “Chofetz Chaim,” Hebrew for “desires life” — as in the words from Psalm 34: “Who is the person who desires life and loves days that he may see the good? Guard your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking deceit” — made a career of writing about issues of lashon harah. 

What if you are forced to do it? What if you will lose money if you don’t do it? What if you feel really, really certain someone will benefit from hearing what you have to say? 

The answer is, pretty much always, don’t. A person can, carefully and with forethought, speak evil of someone if it will save someone else from harm or, sometimes, if it will help the person herself. 

Botnick says that even though the Talmud likens lashon harah to murder, we understand that it is not exactly like murder. It doesn’t do physical damage. Yet, as anyone who has been subjected to it knows, it is real. The teaching that punishment for speaking evil happens in the spiritual realm indicates to Botnick that the damage it causes is also spiritual. 

To prevent this sort of damage — to others and ourselves — without silencing ourselves, writer and teacher Rabbi Jill Hammer suggests we rely on the “Torah of kindness,” found on the tongue of the woman of valor described in Proverbs 31:26, to help us guard our own impulsive tongues.

Words, in Jewish tradition, are binding as soon as they leave our lips. They commit us to marriage, carry our prayers and create a web of enduring community across centuries. They’re a bridge between people and between worlds.

For me, as a writer, a Jew, and a woman who loves stories and the words they are made of, belief in the potential of speech not just to destroy but also to create is impressively hopeful. 

Now maybe I will remember to be attentive to the gift of words, instead of just talking.

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