Talk and Gossip

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March 1, 2006
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Laura Geller

At Temple Emanuel in Los Angeles, we try to organize our High Holy Day sermons around a theme; this year’s topic was “the Jewish conversation.” The subtext of these sermons was that the richer the Jewish conversation, the more meaningful the Jewish identity. We spoke about different types of conversation: engagement and dialogue with sacred texts that cross generations; conversation with God; and the conversations that ought to take place between people, within families and communities. And we also talked about how we should talk with each other.

The conversation began on Rosh Hashanah in the family service. After sharing the well-known image of words being like an arrow shot from its bow, the children shared how words had hurt them — when other children teased or threatened them or made them feel stupid. Adults in the sanctuary were aware of a recent situation where a Jewish teenager had withdrawn from a Jewish school because of the humiliation she suffered as the result of malicious gossip initiated by a jealous girl. Everyone present knew this conversation about the nature of gossip was serious. And then I told the feather pillow story in a more current idiom: a story of a middle school child who accidentally hit “Reply All” on his email, sending a negative but true description of another student to many classmates. We talked about how impossible it would be to retrieve all those emails once they had been sent into cyberspace — just as it would have been impossible to retrieve all the feathers from the pillow in the days of the Hafetz Hayim. The children responded to the story because it was real to them; it was real to the adults as well.

It is impossible to belong to a community without understanding the power of words to hurt and heal. One of the problems is that oftentimes we describe “community” as “a group of people who talk to each other about each other or about the institution that they have in common.” While some would categorize that kind of talk as lashon hara, forbidden speech, it is in fact how information is shared and relationships are built.

The best public relations for synagogues and schools is positive talk. And the most damaging public relations is the negative talk that happens in the carpool or over kiddush on Shabbat — talk about a teacher or event or another congregant. In a healthy community, people pay attention to what they say, how they speak, and why they are sharing information. A couple of questions might guide our conversations: Is the goal of the conversation the enriching of the community? What is the best way to have this kind of conversation? Synagogues and schools need to provide appropriate venues for issues to be discussed, in private and in public, so damaging conversations don’t usurp healthy airings and reflections. But this requires restraint on the part of members of a community as well as wisdom and openness on the part of its leaders. It also requires that members (and rabbis) be courageous enough to say to a friend or acquaintance, “I really don’t want to hear this. There must be a better way to process this information.”

The Rosh Hashanah sermon culminated in children and their parents promising to “guard their tongue” for the next ten days and wear a sticker with the words “lashon hara” crossed out with an arrow. If only it could be that easy!

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Rabbi Laura Geller is Senior Rabbi of Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills, California. Before becoming a pulpit rabbi in 1994, she served as the Executive Director of the American Jewish Congress, Pacific Southwest Region, and Director of Hillel at the University of Southern California.

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