Tradition Today: The power of the tongue

Recent suicide of American college student because of an embarrassing posting about him on an Internet site has caused a great deal of discussion in press worldwide.

The recent suicide of an American college student because of an embarrassing posting about him on an Internet site has caused a great deal of discussion in the press worldwide.
Ironically, his death occurred just at the time when his university was launching a campaign concerning the ethical use and abuse of new technologies.
Unfortunately, this was a perfect example, if any were needed. This was not the first time that cyberspace has been used to bully, embarrass or defame students – sometimes even children in elementary school have been guilty of this. The technology is new, but the misuse of language to cause harm is as old as civilization.
The story is told of a sage who sent his servant to the market to buy the best kind of meat and then he sent him to buy the worst. In each case the servant returned with tongue. The sage praised him, saying that indeed there is nothing better and nothing worse than tongue because “death and life are in the power of the tongue” (Proverbs 18:21).
Speech differentiates humans from other creatures. Speech has enabled the human species to develop the high level of thought that has created civilization.
The great accomplishments of the arts and sciences, the technologies which have shaped modern life, the relationships between people, justice and peace, would all be impossible without speech.
Yet speech is equally responsible for the evils in the world, for wars, for hatred, for terrorism, for crime and human misery.
Both tyrants and great statesmen have come to power with the help of speech.
Contrast the use of speech by Churchill and Hitler. Triumph and tragedy have been caused by the tongue. Did not the inflammatory language used by political leaders contribute to the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, commemorated only last week? What is true of the great events of human history is also true of the everyday events of our lives. Every time we speak – and that is literally hundreds of times a day – we are faced, willy-nilly, with the choice of what to say and that choice can be extremely important. Once the words are out, they can never be retracted. And yet all too often we speak without weighing the consequences of what we say, and those consequences can be devastating.
Within the Jewish tradition the prohibition of gossip has been based on a difficult verse in Leviticus 19:16 which literally translates as “Do not act as a merchant [rachil] among your kinsmen.” Rashi among many others understood this to mean that just as a traveling merchant spreads all kinds of tales when going from place to place, so we too spread tales about others but the Torah prohibits us from doing so. The Hebrew word for gossip – rechilut – stems from this verse.
Judaism prohibits “the evil tongue” – lashon hara, saying anything that has a malicious intent. “Who is the man who is eager for life [hehafetz haim], who desires years of good fortune? Guard your tongue from evil [l’shoncha mera] your lips from speaking guile,” we read in Psalm 34:13- 14. Rabbi Israel Meir Hakohen (1838- 1933), who wrote and preached extensively against lashon hara, was known as the Hafetz Haim from the words at the beginning of this verse which was the name of the first of three books he wrote devoted to the importance of the laws concerning “the evil tongue.” He was very scrupulous about this largely neglected but overwhelmingly important rule of Judaism. Perhaps it would be wise for some well-known rabbinical leaders in Israel who delight in the use of hateful language to read his wise words.
The case of Miriam, who was stricken with a kind of leprosy (metzora) because of speaking slander concerning her brother Moses (see Numbers 12:1-13) is the prime instance of “the evil tongue.” Miriam spoke the truth – Moses had married a Cushite woman – but Miriam’s intent was to cause harm, ra, to her brother’s reputation.
Speaking the truth with intent to harm another is forbidden. The message which was sent out about that young student was true, but revealing it had only one purpose, to shame and embarrass him. It succeeded to the extent of causing him to take his own life.
The midrash says, “If Miriam, who spoke in such a way as to be heard by no one save God alone was punished thus, how much more so will this happen to one who speaks disparagingly of one’s fellow in public” (Sifre Deuteronomy 1). As the sages remarked, speaking evil of others harms three people, the one who speaks it, the one about whom it is spoken and the one who hears it (Arachin 15b).
One of the great Babylonian Amoraim, Mar the son of Ravina, added a personal prayer following his recitation of the Amida (Brachot 17a). It was considered so important that it appears in the siddur after each Amida. Paraphrasing the verse in Proverbs, it begins with the words: My God, keep my tongue from evil and my lips from speaking guile... There is no more meaningful prayer than that. If we were to heed it whenever we speak, this would be a better world.
The writer is the head of the Rabbinical Court of the Masorti Movement and the author of several books, the most recent being Entering Torah.