Lashon ha-ra” literally means “evil speech,” and it refers to a group of laws found in Leviticus 19:16. Essentially, the Torah prohibits speaking ill of someone to a third party. The Torah exhorts us not to peddle gossip within our communities, even if the gossip is true. We are told to keep private what is private. We are also prohibited from listening to lashon ha-ra. And we are told to stop others from engaging in gossip, if possible. The laws are quite complex and detailed — for example, if one were to stop oneself from speaking lashon ha-ra by saying, mid-sentence: “…oops, I won’t continue,” it would be lashon ha-ra. Implied lashon ha-ra is lashon ha-ra. Even a compliment can be lashon ha-ra if it causes a comparison that isn’t positive.
Ultimately, the emphasis on sacred speech in Judaism is rooted in the assertion and assumption that speech is real and immensely powerful. Human beings, created in the image of God, who speaks the world into existence, are enjoined to use that power to create worlds. Speech that is anti-speech negates the life-giving potential of holy speech, speech that constructs. Spinning worlds with our words is the goal of human language, where breath and intention produce sound and meaning, giving rise to culture and crafting a world where God’s image is magnified and human dignity is honored.
Functionally, adhering to a no-gossip lifestyle can foster greater awareness of the present moment. It can help to shape our minds to look with a generous eye and feel with an open heart while holding/containing negativity that may be toxic to our social realities. Demurring from gossip when speaking with friends forces us to engage with what is happening right here and right now by removing the facile and fractious importation of what is happening somewhere else or to someone else, the forever pull toward judging others.
Living in this circumspect way, though, may sometimes create a barrier to intimacy. Sharing interactions and exchanges with an intimate partner helps us to foster the trust and exclusivity that are the hallmarks of a committed relationship. And withholding — for fear of sharing news that borders on gossip — may lessen the depth of the exchange. My wife and I try to stick with informing each other about what is going on around us; we try to avoid negative speech and judgments. Though I wasn’t raised in a home where we talked about other people, my wife and her family introduced me to the joys of “shmoozing” and I kind of like it. I know that creating intimate relationships involves our willingness to share our secrets and to exchange both profound experiences and pedestrian, day- to-day observations. Sometimes, gossiping is fun, and it helps us to process what we are feeling about someone else.
Lashon ha-ra should never interfere with reporting criminal activity, nor should lashon ha-ra be used as an excuse to keep abuse or harmful behavior a secret. There are times when a person is supposed to speak out, even though the information may be disparaging: specifically, if a person’s intent in sharing negative information is for a to’elet, a positive, constructive, and beneficial purpose. The prohibition against lashon ha-ra does not apply if the speech serves as a warning against possible harm or if the truth will exonerate a person who has been falsely accused of a wrongdoing.
Here is my general guideline about disclosing something that could be seen as lashon ha-ra: If there is a possibility that someone will be hurt, in any way, because I withhold information, I share it. If, on the other hand, I am motivated to speak for my own enjoyment or benefit, I avoid doing so.