Unlike the spoken word, which is formidable in its own right, the written word is powerfully enduring and persistent. In general, people’s perception is that the written word — having been meticulously chosen — is usually well thought-out and therefore more authoritative. Thus, the written word, with all its alter egos — books, newspapers, magazines — can become a very powerful and sticky enterprise.
In a haste to sell copies, media outlets often choose to sensationalize events, adding fuel to the fire of controversy. Respectful discussions of issues or policies are often replaced with defacing commentary regarding members and leaders in our community. It’s not hard to figure that solutions aren’t always the end goal. And although we all shake our heads in disapproval when celebrity gossip makes headlines, truth be told, the science of “supply and demand” simply does not lie. If you read it, they will sell it.
There is no question that newspapers and other media outlets are significant tools in the discussion of issues affecting public welfare and promoting an informed, democratic public. However, even with this in mind, Jewish thought still holds that not all news is fit to print.
Such an idea is not so alien in secular American society. It is not uncommon for a newspaper to seek the counsel of a lawyer before publishing an important or controversial story; after all, unsupported facts or misused words could land the newspaper in a lawsuit. Moreover, American values do not promote an unimpeded right to freedom of speech. For example, threats of violence or false statements of fact, or substantially disruptive expression in a school environment, are not considered to be in line with the First Amendment. Freedom of speech simply does not dominate all other American social values.
But “comparing American values and Jewish ones on a matter like [freedom of speech] is a bit like comparing apples and automobiles,” says Rabbi Don Seeman, a professor at Emory University and instructor at the Jewish Learning Institute. In the United States, social liberties —including freedom of speech — were products of a wary society seeking to limit the powers of the state. Government noninterference was the ideal that drove the formation of such constitutional rights.
On the other hand, the Jewish approach to freedom of speech has its roots in Torah thought, which aims to promote the ethical development of a human being. So while both American and Jewish values acknowledge the importance to both bolster and limit the right to speak freely, the American concept is founded on individual liberty, while the Jewish concept centers on cultivating human virtue.
Contrary to the message imparted by the famous nursery rhyme, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” the Torah perspective maintains that “Death and life are in the power of the tongue” (Proverbs 18:21). So adamant is the Torah on this idea, that if one was to hear slander, he or she is forbidden to believe it! (In certain circumstances, one may suspect it to be true in order to protect oneself. For example, if someone was informed of a murderous plot, one is obligated to take necessary precautions.) Furthermore, the common justification, “But it’s true!” or “Even they will admit to it!” is a misinterpretation of the concept of slander, for by its very definition, slander applies specifically to statements that are true. Such Jewish laws regarding speech, collectively known as the laws of shemirat ha’lashon (“guarding the tongue”), highlight the idea that although we have a right to know, we also have an equally important right not to know.
The flip side, then, is that depending on the situation, we are either required or barred from relating certain knowledge or personal sentiments. Cursing one’s parents, for example, is strictly prohibited — always. So is cursing G-d or a judge or even a deaf person; although the deaf cannot be affected by malicious words, the laws of shemirat ha’lashon are aimed both to protect the potential victim from suffering harm and the potential offender from destruction of character. Spreading slander, or lashon ha’ra (“evil language” or “evil tongue”), is damaging to both parties involved.
In a recent editorial released by Hamodia — an Orthodox Jewish newspaper based in Brooklyn, New York — the staff came out with a public statement regarding their decision to refuse reporting on a well-publicized dispute within the charedi (ultra-Orthodox) political arena. They wrote, “We don’t seek to sweep relevant issues under the carpet. We report the news in an unbiased, detailed fashion. What we don’t write about — and we are proud that we don’t — are issues that would involve violating the complex halachos (laws) of proper speech.” They strongly believe that the role of a responsible media outlet should be to clarify issues, not to encourage strife between people. In short, “principles before politics.”
Of course there are situations in which conveying lashon ha’ra is permissible, and even required. For example, there is a commandment in the Torah to admonish a fellow Jew if he or she has acted inappropriately, either in spiritual or mundane matters. However, the rebuke must take place privately, at least several times, before publicly disclosing the transgression in order to encourage the person to change their behavior. (Shame goes a long way after all!) And even then, in order to ensure positive intentions, Chafetz Chaim (“Desirous of Life”) — the magnum opus of Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, which deals with the Jewish ethics and laws of speech — outlines seven conditions that must be fulfilled before revealing the derogatory information. The same process applies to information regarding a potential business or marital partnership. If an individual is unaware of a serious deficiency regarding the person they want to marry or enter into business with, we are obligated to tell him or her about it.
The Jewish rules of speech are long, complicated, and teeming with gray areas. There are entire books dedicated to dissecting various social scenarios and providing guidance regarding appropriate conduct according to the Torah perspective. But although the complexities can be extremely overwhelming, Chafetz Chaim encourages individuals to read on the subject matter of lashon ha’ra, “even if the only result will be a sigh when he completes [the reading].” Simply becoming more sensitive to the power of our words is, in itself, a tremendous accomplishment.
But the larger goal, of course, is that this sigh will one day inspire us to think twice before submitting a punishing review on Yelp (did we speak to the restaurant manager privately first?) or posting an unfavorable jibe on Facebook (even if it is true!). Our words extend further and penetrate deeper than we often care to realize.
In many ways, the message is as pertinent to us — Ha’Am staff — as the voice of Jewish life on campus, as it is to the audiences (i.e. you!) we write for. We must keep in mind that when people pick up something to read, they have given it the right to influence their lives — to varying degrees. So when we write on behalf of the Jewish community, we choose to be a voice that penetrates thoughts, builds attitudes, and fosters action. That is quite the responsibility.
But at the end of the day, Ha’Am is only a single forum in a realm of many. And what people choose to hear and read is as much a choice as what people choose to say and write. Only we, as individuals, can filter the voices we choose to shape our lives.
The following saying of the Kotzker Rebbe, a famous Chassidic rabbi and leader, reveals, in four simple lines, the profound wisdom extracted from the practice of shemirat ha’lashon:
Not all that is thought should be said;
Not all that is said should be written;
Not all that is written should be published;
Not all that is published should be read.