Is Gossip Good?

Judaism’s laws of proper speech
Libel and Gossip

Gossip As A Gauge Of A Religion's Commitment To Reality:

Every religion (and every moral system) of which I am aware condemns gossip. None do it in as minute detail as Judaism.

It has generally been taken for granted by elevated individuals that gossip is bad.

In 2007, Dennis Prager passionately opposed outing the names of the DC madam's clients. Why ruin their lives over something so trivial?

Gossip undoubtedly destroys friendships, marriages, business partnerships and sometimes causes people to kill themselves and others, but much of the time, the damage that is blamed on gossip more rightly belongs on people who have acted badly. Such people often blame gossip for holding them accountable for their behavior.

If a man cheats on his wife, sometimes it is wrong to gossip about it and sometimes it is right. It depends on the circumstance. Sometimes it would be better for the wife to be informed and sometimes it would not.

Gossip is as bad as water. Sometimes water can save a life and sometimes water can kill.

As Dennis Prager says, ethics are both situational and absolute. The context determines the moral absolute. Sometimes it is right to lie ("Where are you hiding the Jews?") and right to kill (such as the Nazis during World War II).

There's no escape from making moral judgments and deciding when to speak and when to keep silent, when to act and when to hold back.

ABC News, August 17, 2005:

"If we listen we can learn what people find offensive or what people find acceptable, what they don't find acceptable," says Dr. Sarah Wert, a research psychologist. "So to that extent, it's a way to learn how to be a better social actor."

…The accuracy of the gossip may not matter as much as how often you engage in it. "Gossip humanizes people," Froelich said. "And when people on the street can be like, 'oh, she's rich, she's beautiful, she's famous, she seems to have everything, but oh wait, her fiancé cheated on her too, hmmm …'"

Orthodox rabbi and historian Dr. Marc B. Shapiro said in a 2008 lecture for Torah in Motion on "The Lives of the Gedolim":

"If you read my blogs, you'll see that I am a relentless exposer of the fraudulence not just in the chareidi world but in the Modern Orthodox world. It all needs to be exposed. But that doesn't mean that every simple person needs to know… As Rav Kook says, if they come into our world and try to affect us with their fraudulent stories, it needs to be exposed. But if they want to live by these bubbemeisers (old wives tales), that's a way of life. I'm like Rabbi Slifkin in this regard. Only if it threatens to interfere in the wider community.

"It's hard to know what lashon hara (gossip) is. You don't really know what lashon hara is. I have read many letters of gedolim and they are full of negative comments about other rabbis, which you would say is lashon hara. As anyone knows, they badmouth them all the time. If you asked the rav, he would say it is not lashon hara. The Torah says you have to expose chanafim (hypocrites, flatterers).

("The admonition to expose hypocrites is stated in Yoma 86b where it is derived from [the legal category of] Chillul HaShem," emails Marc in reply to my question.)

"We are supposed to expose hypocrisy. I would say that if you asked all these rabbonim who say terrible things about other ones and were great talmidei chachamim, if you asked them, they would say it is not lashon hara, but he's a fraud and I have to expose him. It could be that he's not a fraud and that it's just a personal dispute.

"I don't think it's lashon hara to talk about a dispute that the whole world knew about and it was in all the newspapers… If a certain rav did a bad thing. There's a rav, not a gadol of the first calibre but of the second calibre, but he had a child out of wedlock when he was about 17 and in yeshiva. About 20 years ago, one of the Israeli newspapers exposed him and published the birth certificate. I think that's a terrible breach of privacy. He made a mistake when he was young. I don't think it's anyone's business. I would never expose something like that. If I knew about it, I would probably choose not to write about him because how could you write about him and not talk about it?

"If there was a case like this where he abandoned the girl and wanted nothing to do with them and then he became a big scholar, a Talmud Chacham, a posek, I don't think that's lashon hara. This would be an example of exposing the hypocrites."

"I try to balance Jewish values with secular values. As a secular historian, you go into a grave and dig up the body if you need to. They dug up Zachary Taylor's body to see if he was poisoned. I would have no problem as a secular historian if I was writing about a figure like Einstein, but among gedolim, I do not do that. I can honestly say that I've never had to make that choice with Rabbi Yaakov Jechiel Weinberg. I would rather not write about somebody than have to cover something like that up… Certain great rabbinic figures, I would treat differently than other figures. If that is not in correspondence with historical [analysis], what are they going to do? Take my tenure away? Life is not only about historical craft."

New York Times: Have You Heard? Gossip Turns Out to Serve a Purpose

Given this protective group function, gossiping too little may be at least as risky as gossiping too much, some psychologists say. After all, scuttlebutt is the most highly valued social currency there is. While humor and story telling can warm any occasion, a good scoop spreads through a room like an illicit and irresistible drug, passed along in nods and crooked smiles, in discreet walks out to the balcony, the corridor, the powder room.

Knowing that your boss is cheating on his wife, or that a sister-in-law has a drinking problem or a rival has benefited from a secret trust fund may be enormously important, and in many cases change a person's behavior for the better.

"We all know people who are not calibrated to the social world at all, who if they participated in gossip sessions would learn a whole lot of stuff they need to know and can't learn anywhere else, like how reliable people are, how trustworthy," said Sarah Wert, a psychologist at Yale. "Not participating in gossip at some level can be unhealthy, and abnormal."

Unless you acknowledge the powerful good that gossip can give, you are not confronting the issue. Almost all religious texts I've read about gossip, including the best (such as by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin), give short shrift to the moral necessity of much gossip (which protects the innocent from predators). By so doing, religion ignores reality and impedes progress towards a better world.

The primary reason gossip has a bad name (in secular or religious life) is that the benefits of gossip are diffused among many people (though they are better informed, they have little incentive to speak up for the value of gossip) while the price of gossip is concentrated on individual subjects who have a huge incentive to tamp it down.

Let me give an example. Let's suppose a rabbi is so physically affectionate (not that he's a predator) that he makes some people he hugs uncomfortable.

Gossip about this hugging rabbi protects those who would not like to hugged by the rabbi.

The rabbi could take this gossip as a form of reproof and reform his ways, but his most likely reaction would be to feel angry and protest vigorously that he's done nothing wrong, and that this gossip is evil because it humiliates him unnecessarily.

From the 8/96 issue of Psychology Today:

The English word "gossip" originated as "godsibb," meaning "a person related to one in God," or a godparent. Until the 1800s, "gossip" denoted friendship. Today gossip is defined by the dictionary as "chatty talk; the reporting of sensational or intimate information."

"If people aren't talking about other people, it's a signal that something is wrong – that we feel socially alienated or indifferent," says Ralph Rosnow, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Temple University and coauthor of Rumor and Gossip: The Social Psychology of Hearsay.

"For a real understanding of our social environment, gossip is essential," agrees Jack Levin, Ph.D., professor of sociology and criminology at Boston's Northeastern University and coauthor of Gossip: The Inside Scoop. "It's primary function is to help us make social comparisons. For example, if we read bad news about celebrities in the tabloids, or get into the gruesome details of our neighbor's misery over a cup of coffee, our own problems begin to pale in comparison."

Many people may gain from being gossiped about. Targets of gossip are made more human, more easy to identify with.

Gossip is a way for people to let you know, without confrontation, the limits on personal behavior. "If you move into a community and your neighbor tells you how the previous homeowner never disposed of his garbage properly, his gossip is letting you in on something else.

"Gossip shepherds the herd. It says: these are the boundaries and you're crossing them. You're not abiding by the rules and you'd better get back in step," says Rosnow.

"If you want to know about the kind of insurance coverage your employer offers, look in the company handbook," says Levin. "But if you want to know who to avoid, who the boss loves or loathes, who to go to when you need help, what it really takes to get a promotion or raise, and how much you can safely slack off, you're better off paying attention to the company grapevine."

Gossip tells you who's in. If you're worth being talked about, you're in. If you've got valuable information, you're in.

Kids' gossip is more innocent and cruel than that of adults. "Cruel comments, but effective ones," says Levin, "because the target learns some important information. Namely, that he is not invisible to the rest of the world. The result? This vital piece of information [badly dressed, a cheater or whatever] helps him see he needs to change his offensive behavior."

Women gossip more than men. Women talk about people in their lives while men engage in "shop talk," which revolves around work, sports stars, politicians…

"Gossip is similar to a Rorschach test," says Levin. "If you look at the nature of someone's gossip, you can find out what concerns them."

"We found that people who gossip the most rank highest on the anxiety scale," says Rosnow. "Not only do they disclose more, but the anxious are on the receiving end of gossip more often and are more likely than those less anxious to consider information crucial."

Dr. Gary Allen Fine says "we gossip about people we care about. We don't bother talking about people who don't matter to us."

Most of the time, the gossip spread between two people about a third absent friend is neutral news: a pregnancy, a promotion. But betraying a confidence, spreading sensitive information like an adulterous affair, can end a friendship.

When Dr. Rosnow asked subjects who they "liked," he found gossipees – the people being talked about – were usually not the most popular, essentially because they're different and don't conform. But the people engaging in gossip weren't particularly popular either because of their untrustworthiness.

Gossip is always about people, involving either fact or supposition. Rumors may or may not involve people but are always speculative. Rosnow says rumors deal with people's anxieties. There are two types: wish rumors that we hope are true, and dread rumors that we pray are false.

"Rumors are an echo of ourselves," says Dr. Jean-Noel Kapferer. "They reveal the desires, fears, and obsessions of a society."

In an essay in the New Republic, Nicholas Lemann writes: "Gossip is an appurtenance of a striving, socially unified society. It's worth watching as a barometer of our aspirations. As the middle classes obtain for themselves the glamrous, turbulent lives of the rich and famous, there is real danger that gossip as we know it could whither away. We could return to the status quo, ante-Society in which nobody's personal life was considered to be nationally riveting.

"The truth is, the proper time to become alarmed about the role of gossip in American Society is when there starts to be less of it."

© Associated Newspapers Ltd., 31 July 1998, This Is London:

Old-fashioned gossip is not only about dishing the dirt – it is essential to survival, according to an academic study today. Any employer who wants a happy and efficient company should let office gossip continue rather than try to stamp it out, the report claimed.

It revealed that the need to gossip and spread rumours is an instinct modern humans have kept since the Stone Age.

In those days it was vital to swap information on where the food was and to let others know who was the chief hunter, and so on. Today it is not that much different says Nigel Nicholson, professor of organisational behaviour at London Business School. "People create rumours when they are uncertain and need to create certainty to fill a vacuum," he added. "They gossip to create a social network and put themselves in that circle and give themselves an advantage by being in with the right group.

"Gossiping – which goes back to the Stone Age and beyond – is good for you. It makes you more psychologically positive. "A good boss should not try to quash rumours and gossip with memos and e-mail, he should get involved in it. I call it management-by-wandering-about. Go out there and communicate properly. He should know what people talk about."

The report, published by the influential journal Harvard Business Review, urges employers to communicate by talking instead of on computers or paper.

Without the traditional gossip network – from neighbours chatting over the garden fence to political spin doctors – society could crumble. "Any social system needs gossip to remain intact," he added.

Gregory Rodriquez writes in The Los Angeles Times July 2, 2007

A few years ago, two British researchers concluded that celebrity-watching — if it doesn't become an all-out obsession — can be a healthy part of adolescent development and bonding. A survey of English schoolchildren revealed that "celebrity attachments" serve as "pseudo-friends" who become the subject of gossip and discussion among their real friends. The kids' fascination with celebs not only helps them bond with classmates but to become more autonomous from their parents. Meantime, those children who do develop unhealthy fixations on the lives of stars were likely to be lonely and lacking strong bonds with family and friends.

I suspect that the same elements driving adolescent fandom in Britain — bonding, socialization — also explain why so many grown-ups like to keep up on Brangelina and Britney. Sure, the handful of fanatics who literally worship Michael Jackson or Madonna are maladjusted, but there are millions of others for whom celebrity gossip serves a useful function, especially in societies no longer characterized by tightknit communities.

Study after study has tracked our eroding commitment to community, as more Americans spend time with their computers, or at work, instead of in bowling leagues or with their loved ones. Following the trials and tribulations of the rich and famous can be a way for us to connect to others and even to make sense of our lives. No, I don't mean that we actually think that Angelina Jolie is our friend, but that the chatter she inspires can sometimes link us to strangers.

Think of how sports talk breaks the ice between men. As a male who doesn't much care for sports, I envy the kind of bonding that sports lovers share. Celebrity gossip may be more associated with women, but it crosses gender lines more readily than sports. And it provides the juicy stories and personal dilemmas that people love to chat about and analyze together.

Whispering about the lives of others always has served as a finely tuned social warning system that helps people avoid the inevitable pitfalls of life. Did you hear who she hooked up with? Can you believe he did that? How could they have fallen for the Nigerian e-mail scam? Plenty of not-so-idle gossip warns us about bad guys, the consequences of certain types of behavior and iffy practices of all types.

If you watched the extraordinarily boring Larry King interview with Paris Hilton, you realize that Paris herself isn't anywhere near as interesting as what we all think about her. That's the point. The long arm of electronic media has allowed us to include an ever-expanding world of complete strangers in our social circle. And just as we would a neighbor or classmate, we judge and dissect her life as a means to justify our own, reinforce our life choices, sort out and share our opinions with others.

"She's an idiot." "I feel sorry for her." "She got what she deserved." However we talk about Paris, it says a lot more about us than it does about her.

Paris mania feeds an admittedly flimsy form of community, but don't blame her, the media or the unwashed masses for that. Everyone from Tocqueville to Wim Wenders has commented upon the dangers of anomie in American life. Over the last half a century, patterns of suburbanization have intensified that sense of alienation and rootlessness. Since the 1970s, a growing disenchantment with politics has further loosened our links to community. We don't like the political process because we feel that we have no effect on it, and we suspect that it's dominated by narrow, powerful forces that don't have our best interests at heart.

Morality of Gossip

Luke writes in 1998: When I first came to Judaism, I took on the value that gossip was a sin. It was destructive and unethical. Then, from late 1995 onwards, I resumed my career as a journalist. Part of my job is to deal in gossip. I read Rabbi Joseph Telushkin's book on gossip (Words That Wound, Words That Heal) and found it initially impressive.

Now I've developed a reputation as a professional gossip. That it is what I do for a living. I've now also revised my views on the morality of gossip. I now think of gossip as like any other activity, morally neutral. The morality of gossip depends entirely on its content and context. I now no longer think of gossip as overwhelmingly destructive.

I'm reading a book entitled "Good Gossip." It is one of many academic works over the past few years in praise of gossip, pointing out the good that gossip does, such as bonding, community, developing, enforcing and subverting norms, challenging power, overturning institutions. I no longer agree with the comment that idiots talk about people, and the wise about ideas. Why are ideas more important than people? Sometimes they are and sometimes they are not. Context is king.

Ethel writes: "My experience with gossip was work-related. I took a college course on management of human resources. To my great shock, there was a section defining the grapevine as a legitimate communication source. It changed my whole POV concerning gossip. It's so rational too. So it's really important to accept gossip and then manage it personally so it doesn't effect one's own good judgement. One's personal observations should be primary when decision-making is needed."

Larry writes:

Gossip serves an additional role that is still significant today, but was very important to our ancestors. Gossip develops the values, significance, judgmental capacity, and group concensus — or chasm — of the gossipers.

I agree with Luke's words, "…the good that gossip does, such as bonding, community, developing, enforcing and subverting norms…"

Ancestors were ravaged by disease, infirmity, and the elements, to an extent that we find hard to imagine. If a member of the group were suspected of being, what we now call, less lucid …. then drawing that person into gossip could test that person's judgment.

Puzzles are central to mythology ; ditto for gossip. I wonder if any languages have one word for our two concepts: myth and gossip.

There's that guy on the radio, who's arguing for the importance of Values in our schools. Lots of settings determine values —

— Eye-to-eye explanation from parent to child

— Formal explanation by religious institutions

— Formal teaching by schools.

Some people have the audacity to claim that *actual practice* is at least half as significant as *formal explanation* in these three settings.

Now, let's consider —– gossip: Children's values are shaped as much by vicarious participation in gossip, as they are shaped by some of the settings mentioned above.

Among teenagers exploring the realm of less-restricted behavior, gossip is not so much about confirming 'valid' information about THEM 'over there.' Instead, gossip forges and shephards the behavior of oneself and one's closest peers. It does so for
better or worse.

In summary, here's another puzzle: As a whole, gossip is bad. Yet not only is some gossip good, some is essential.

From The New Republic, William Powers writes 6/9/97:

…undergirding all tabloid journalism is a rigid code of right and wrong, in which people are held to very particular standards of behavior. In this system, which may be the closest thing we have today to a universal populist ethos, all the ancient social norms are honored: thou shalt not kill, rape, steal, lie and so forth. But in the tabloids' reckoning of the world, which is calculated to mirror that of the supermarket masses, two sins in particular–pride and hypocrisy– have special importance. This is why the JonBenet Ramsey case, which in the tabloid storyline is really about two parents who exploited their daughter's beauty to feed their own pride, is the premier tabloid story of the day. Many children are murdered each year, but this is not just a murder story, it's a morality play about a "tiny beauty" and her wicked stage parents. "Away from the bright lights," the Star reported, "she just wanted to be a normal kid." This is probably pretty much the way most Americans see the story, too.

And to the tabloids, the O.J. Simpson story, which preceded JonBenet in the number-one spot, was not a parable about race, as the mainstream media suggested. It was about a celebrity who thought he was above the law. (And this is certainly the way a lot of people saw the O.J. case.) Nothing raises tabloid fury more than the spectacle of a celebrity getting away with something, or getting above himself. In the pages of the National Enquirer, drug abuse, infidelity and myriad other wrongs are often forgiven, but if you are caught pretending to be something you're not–caught being too big for your britches–they'll flay you. Far from mindlessly adoring celebrities in the way the New York glossies and many newspapers do, the tabloids cover movie stars and other famous people with one eye narrowed, ever-vigilant for phoniness, grossness or some species of immoral behavior. Violators are swiftly, gleefully cut down. It is ruthless and ugly and cruel, but it is arguably more honest than the way the proper press covers these things. Who do you think has a truer sense of Roseanne–the average tabloid reader or the reader of John Lahr's New Yorker valentine? When Magic Johnson was revealed to be infected with the HIV virus, who did a more brutally honest job of covering the story of his promiscuous lifestyle–the tabs or the Times?

From 12/27/2000 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

But the battle against gossip has been a long and mostly unsuccessful one, partly because it's such a fixture of human communication, according to Dan Santoro, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Pittsburgh — Johnstown.

"People have always gossiped," he said. "Maybe, at one time, gossip was news if you lived in a village and there were no formal channels for disseminating information."

In pre-industrial societies, he said, relationships were based on customs and traditions. "What was really important," Santoro said, "was your reputation. The fear of your reputation being questioned kept people in line.

"In our society right now, it has just become a big industry. Your personal reputation isn't as important as it used to be."

Gossip and rumors always have been a part of politics. In her book, "Scorpion Tongues: The Irresistible History of Gossip in American Politics" (William Morrow, 1998), author Gail Collins writes about George Washington's alleged mistresses, the rumor that Grover Cleveland beat his wife so severely during her pregnancy that their daughter was born with extensive brain damage and the story that when Woodrow Wilson proposed to his second wife, she was so surprised that she fell out of bed.

Various magazines, talk shows and TV programs featuring "stars" such as Rush Limbaugh, Howard Stern and Don Imus track the real and imagined peccadilloes of public figures.

Jim Lichtman, an author and ethics specialist in Santa Barbara, Calif., divides gossip into two categories: talk among family and friends, and malicious or unethical gossip. That does not mean, he said, that either is right. "Would you want somebody passing around inaccurate or false rumors about yourself?" he asked.

"The real criteria we should use, although it sounds simple, is to more or less follow the golden rule: `Do unto others as you would have others do to you.' "

Lichtman is author of "The Lone Ranger's Code of the West" (Scribbler's Ink, 1996), a book focusing on eight ethical values of the masked do-gooder. A frequent speaker on ethics to corporations, Lichtman likes to challenge his audiences to ponder ethics questions with, "What would the Lone Ranger do?"

It's a way, he said, to force people to be more conscious about their decisions and have a greater commitment to ethical values. To that end, Lichtman said, a person doesn't have to speak gossip in order to be guilty of it. And it doesn't stop there.

"As soon as you participate in it, you are involved," he said. "You begin to lower the bar for yourself. Other things become less important. "In business and in public life today … the thing you erode away faster than anything else is trust. Once the credibility is gone … you're going to have to work two, three, four times as hard to get it back."

Luke says 5/15/05: I have studied the Chafetz Chaim (translated into English) and rabbi Telushkin's book Words That Wound, Words That Heal. In fact, I have read every book (religious or secular) on gossip I could get my hands on (about two dozen).

If I were to observe the restrictions of the Chafetz Chaim, I would not be able to publish most of my website I wouldn't be able to work as a journalist. Nobody would. Journalism would be impossible.

Surely Judaism's teachings on forbidden speech are more complex than what the Chafetz Chaim codified. The example of Judaism's sacred texts, such as the Bible and the Talmud, are filled with examples of Jewish leaders being held accountable for their behavior and called out on it.

The problem with much of the reflexive religious teachings against gossip is that they focus on the harm done to specific individuals who are gossiped about (and let's focus here on gossip that is true) and ignore the benefit widely shared among many people from gaining the information of that gossip. As in free trade, the price paid by targets of gossip can be huge, giving them a huge incentive to fight against gossip, while the benefits of the gossip are spread out among hundreds of people. Thus, few of them have an incentive to speak out on behalf of the accurate gossipm, such as that a particular rabbi should not work with kids or counsel women because he's a predator.

Does This Information Serve The Public Good?

Larry Yudelson writes 5/15/05:

Many years ago, when I was at Yeshiva College and on the editorial board of Hamevaser, I had a late night discussion with some of my colleagues about the question of Lashon Hora [gossip] and journalism. The standard, according to the Chofetz Chaim, is not "is the information derogatory" but "does this information serve the public good"?

Clearly, political news qualifies, because a society with a press that criticizes its leaders is better than a society (such as the Chofetz Chaim's Russia) lacking such a press.

In fact, a quick glance at indicates that all of the current headlines meet the criterion of serving the public interest.

The one exception that we thought of, where standard journalistic practice is at odds with the Public Good standard of the Chofetz Chaim, would the publication of allegations and other charges filed against citizens who are still presumptively innocent. I believe Halacha might mandate that the right to release the name of an accused or arrested suspect prior to conviction belongs only to the accused. This would be where the citizen is in custody or otherwise not dangerous; situations like the FBI Most Wanted List, where the criminals are at large and fleeing arrest, are different, because society has an interest in catching suspects.

Luke says: I don't believe "public good" was the Chofetz Chaim's standard. Where does he say that?

Here is how the Chofetz Chaim is described by his son: "Father had no personal friendships with anyone all the days of his life."

Rabbi Ari Kahn writes: "Individuals who behave in an extreme anti-social manner lose the right of being protected by the laws of Loshan Hara. Individuals who are predators certainly lose this right. Individuals who may be future victims have a right to know about someone who is potentially threatening them. I am suggesting that a Beit Din make these determinations."

The Making Of The American Conservative Mind: National Review and Its Times

George Will writes in The NYT Book Review:

For more than three decades, [Jeffrey Peter] Hart, an emeritus professor of English at Dartmouth, has been a senior editor of National Review. There he has seen, and helped to referee, conservatism's struggles of self-definition. His book is a gossipy memoir leavened by a quick skimming of 50 years of political history. "I confess," he says, "to a fondness for gossip, which, indeed, is a conservative genre. Gossips do not want to change the world; they want to enjoy it."

Mickey Kaus argues that reporting on the private lives of politicians gets people more interested in politics. He writes July 9, 2007 on Slate: "L.A.'s mayor faces some N.Y. tabloid-style questioning at a news conference. The L.A. Times reporter who didn't get the story doesn't know quite what to make of this new state of affairs–I detect a mild sneering tone! Luke Ford sees a "beautiful synchronicity." … I think Angelenos may be actually getting interested in local politics for once, which will give us better government in the long run. Special interests (e.g., unions, developers) have less power when people are actually paying attention. [What will happen if all the pols in power are no longer womanizers, etc.?–ed Not a serious possibility.]"

Academic Kevin Glynn said the tabloid media "multiplies and amplifies the heterogenous voices and viewpoints in circulation in contemporary culture, giving rein to many that are typically excluded from the dominant regime of truth… The shrill and revulsive response to tabloid media form 'respectable' journalism and other elite social quarters indicates the extent to which their popularity threatens officialdom's power to regulate the discursive procedures through which we make sense of society and ourselves. 'Serious' journalism is far more concerned with controlling, organizing, and ordering the hierarchy of voices it admits into its discurse reportoir than is tabloid news, whose contents are driven by ratings and circulation." (Pg. 132-133 of Journalism: Truth or Dare).

Ian Hargreaves writes:

Glynn brings to his advocacy for tabloid journalism a specifically political case, involving the election to the governorship of Minnesota in 1998 of Jesse "The Body" Ventura, a former professional wrestler and radio talk-show "shock jock." Glynn sees the very high turnout in this election (over 60 per cent, compared with less than 50 per cent even for presidential races) resulting from Ventura's fluency with tabloid-style communication, that enabled him to assemble an extraordinary coalition of supporters, many of them normally excluded from the political domain. (Pg. 134)

Liz Smith says: "Gossip is just news running ahead of itself in a red satin gown."

Camille Paglia says: "Half-fictionalized as they are, the tabloids with their twin themes of sex of violence tell the pagan truth about life."

Jack Shafer writes for Slate Aug. 27, 2007 about New York Times public editor Clark Hoyt's Aug. 26 column:

One of the flaws in Hoyt's thinking is his belief that one's reputation is a possession –like a car or a tennis racket — when one's reputation actually resides in the minds of others. A person can have as many reputations as people who know him or know of him. Positing that the top link in a Google search of a name equals somebody's reputation is silly, and Hoyt's column only encourages that notion.

If Google users conclude that an individual is guilty of fondling a child just because a Times story reported his arrest, that says more about their gullibility than it does about the inadequacies of the Web or the Times. The Times is wonderful, but it's not a vaccine against stupidity.

Whatever their shortcomings, search engines are a million times superior to human memory, which they are rapidly replacing. 

The Web also offers those wounded a variety of ways to manage their reputations and mitigate the offenses of the New York Times (and of other publications). 

By exaggerating the absolute power of the Times and Google to determine reputation, Hoyt's column encourages people to think of themselves as technopawns. (It also damages Hoyt's reputation in the process, but that's his problem.) I'm all for getting the Times to correct meaningful errors of fact in a decent interval, but if you want to secure a better reputation than the one that Google currently spits out, get busy and build it yourself.

The Chofetz Chaim was a European Orthodox rabbi who lived at the turn of the last century. According to Wikipedia: “Yisrael Meir (Kagan) Poupko (Dziatłava, 1838 – Radun’, 1933), known popularly as The Chofetz Chaim, was an influential Lithuanian Jewish rabbi of the Musar movement, a Halakhist, posek, and ethicist whose works continue to be widely influential in Jewish life. His surname, Poupko, is not widely known.”

The rabbi’s most famous book is known as the Chofetz Chaim (Desiring Life) and it is against gossip. Like many leading rabbis, Yisrael Meir became known by the name of his leading publication.

In his first lecture on R. Meir Simcha of Dvinsk for Torah in Motion, history professor Marc B. Shapiro says: The Mishna Brura (the most influential commentary today on daily Jewish law for Ashkenazi Jews compiled by the Chofetz Chaim) only became canonical in the last 30 years.

R. Meir Simcha of Dvinsk attacked the Chofetz Chaim at a rabbinic meeting in 1910. R. Meir Simcha of Dvinsk said the meeting was only for congregational rabbis.

Various rabbis made fun of the book Chofetz Chaim. The Chazon Ish is said to have made fun of the Chofetz Chaim book on gossip. “Even if these stories are not accurate, that they are told in the yeshiva world shows that this is an ethos that great rabbis shared.”

Chazon Ish said the Chofetz Chaim did not know what he was talking about in this book.

According to his critics, the Chofetz Chaim created halacha (Jewish law) out of mussar (ethical exhortations, frequently extreme). That he took aggadic (stories) things and turned them into halacha. That he took ethical statements and turned them into Jewish law.

“I don’t know today if anyone would have the courage to say something like that [to make these criticisms of the Chofetz Chaim book].”

Marc Shapiro emails to correct my flawed early version of this blog post: “I was asked what the Chazon Ish thought of the book called Chofetz Chaim, which is a book about Lashon Hara. That is what the Chazon Ish is said not to have liked, not the person known as the Chofetz Chaim. The Chazon Ish thought the world of the person the Chofetz Chaim, and also his book Mishneh Berurah. But he wasn’t such a fan of the BOOK Chofetz Chaim.”

According to the Chofetz Chaim, no gossip is permitted, even between husband and wife. Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach thought differently.

Today, the Chofetz Chaim is the last word in these matters and that Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach would have the temerity to tell yeshiva students that they don’t have to listen to the Chofetz Chaim, that’s a bit difficult in the yeshiva world today and so they removed it [from a haredi publication of Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach].

According to Rabbi Jacob Emden, you could say Lashon Hara (gossip) about anyone who was your enemy. I guess this is a justification for all the Lashon Hara he tells in his own books.

There are all sorts of heterim (permissions) for Lashon Hara. The Meiri says that if you say it publicly, it is not Lashon Hara. There are all sorts of views out there by great rabbis. Then the Chofetz Chaim codified Judaism’s teachings on gossip and made it appear as though Judaism had a universal prohibition on speaking ill of others.

If you read the writings of the great rabbis, almost all of these gadolim violate the laws of the Chofetz Chaim (Desiring Life). Of course, these great rabbis do not think they are saying Lashon Hara. They believe the target of their enmity deserves it. If their target is doing bad things, then they deserve.

It’s depressing. For many of these rabbis, it’s just a personal weakness, though none of them would admit it. They’d say they are exposing hypocrites as the Talmud commands.

From Principles to Rules and from Musar to Halakhah: The Hafetz Hayim’s Rulings on Libel and Gossip by Benjamin Brown:

Story from Professor Israel Ta-Shma:

In the year 1873, when the Hafetz Hayim finished writing his book Hafetz Hayim on libel and gossip, he wished to publish it with rabbinical endorsements, as was customary. Since he also wanted to distribute the book among the Hasidim, he wished to get an endorsement from one of the prominent Hasidic masters of the time. He therefore sent an emissary to the Rebbe of Alexander, as well as to a few prominent rabbis, to give them a copy of the new book and ask for their endorsements. The emissary reached the Polish rebbe, and requested his endorsement.

‘‘What is the book about?’’– asked the rebbe.

‘‘About the laws of libel’’– he replied.

‘‘And why do we need a book on the laws of libel?’’ – the rebbe continued.

Embarrassed by the strange question, the emissary answered plainly: ‘‘The book teaches that one may not hurt his neighbor even by speech.’’

To this the rebbe responded:‘‘To hurt one’s neighbor one does not need a tongue or speech; it’s enough just to make an ’eh!’’’– and he made a slight dismissive gesture with his hand.

Seeing that the rebbe refused to give him the desired endorsement, the emissary continued on to the other personalities, all of whom complied willingly. When he came back to the Hafetz Hayim, the emissary reported that all the referees gave him their endorsements, except for the Rebbe of Alexander.

‘‘The Rebbe of Alexander? –’eh!’’– the Hafetz Hayim responded, and made a slight dismissive gesture with his hand…

The emissary told him about his meeting with the rebbe and the content of their conversation. Hearing that, the Hafetz Hayim hurried to add an article to the book, stating that ‘‘there is no difference between one who speaks libel about another person explicitly and one who does it by intimation; in any case it is considered libel.”

Benjamin Brown writes: When the Rebbe of Alexander insinuated that there is no need for a book that articulates the laws of libel, he meant that it would be better to leave this topic in the realm of principles – in this case the principle that‘‘one may not hurt his neighbor even by speech.’’In the example that he gave, he wanted to intimate that one cannot cover all of the possible cases of libel in rules, and that the formulation of the norms in the form of rules would, therefore, needlessly diminish the force of the principle. The Hafetz Hayim’s response represents the opposite tendency: he thought that the norms for libel should definitely be formulated as all-inclusive rules.Therefore, when he was confronted by a case that the existing rules did not cover, he sought to articulate it, too. As I will clarify later on, the traditional rule-centered genre in Jewish tradition is halakhah, while the principle-centered one is known as musar. The Hafetz Hayim’s literary enterprise in this branch should therefore be considered as the halakhization of musar, or, if we allow ourselves a less accurate term, a legalization of ethics.

First I will introduce the theoretical framework for the examination of the relationship between halakhic literature and musar literature. I will then demonstrate that the prohibition against libel had usually been considered a branch of musar, and that it was the Hafetz Hayim who transformed it into a branch of halakhah. After having analyzed the methods used to implement this transformation and its consequences, I will try to evaluate its degree of success…

In classical Jewish literature there is only minimal reference, if at all, to the distinction between musar and halakhah, but in more recent generations we find trends that are similar to those I have suggested here. Thus, for instance, when Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein formulated the distinction between the two, he convincingly adopted Fuller’s model, and identified the halakhahas a‘‘morality of duty’’and musaras a ‘‘morality of aspiration.’’ Apart from‘‘duties to aspire’’Rabbi Lichtenstein included in the category of musar norms which are not binding at all, such aslifnim mi-shurat ha-din(going beyond the letter ofthe law),19and others may add middat hasidut(pietistic virtue) and similar categories.20 These norms, needless to say, are also closer to principles than to rules. Yeshayahu Tishbi and Joseph Dan wrote similarly regarding the relationship between halakhah and musar:‘‘The halakhah cuts to the minimum that the servant of God is required to doin order to fulfill his obligation to his Creator […] The musar literature seeks not the minimum, but the maximum – the path by which man will reach the zenith of religious life, of approaching and clinging to God.’

…Indeed, even if the Jewish thinkers of all generations gave little attention to the theoretical question of the distinction between halakhah and musar, the living Jewish tradition knew very well how to distinguish between them. Even without being equipped with analytical conceptual tools, every bookseller of religious literature knows that the Mishneh Torah, the Tur and the Shulhan Arukh should be placed in the section of halakhic books, while Hovot ha-Levavot, Sha‘arei Teshuvah, Orhot Tzaddikim, Mesillat Yesharim and the like should be placed in the collection of musar books…

In rabbinic literature, the prohibition against libel developed as an integral part of the area of musar. Indeed, the prohibition‘‘Thou shalt not go as a talebearer among thy people’’(Lev 19:16)45 was clearly considered a binding norm, but apparently it was conceived throughout the generations as a‘‘duty to aspire,’’and not as a duty that can be articulated in concrete actions. In the Mishnah we find the term lashon ha-raonly once46– and that one is in an aggadic context. The term motzi shem ra (sullying a person’s reputation) appears several times, and in halakhic contexts, but only in the sense of ascribing improper sexual behavior to a woman.47 In this,the language of the Sages clearly follows the language of the Torah (Deut 22:14, 19), and this is indeed the limited sense that the term had in their world, in contrast to the broader sense that Maimonides and his followers (including the Hafetz Hayim) attached to it. The latter conceived it as referring to any untrue libel. The term rakhil (gossip, talebearing), too, appears in the Mishnah only once,48 in the sense of revealing a secret, and the context there seems halakhic, yet it is not decisive. The Sages of the Talmud mention these terms more frequently, but generally these references are short and offhanded. The short length is not in itself evidence of the non-halakhic nature of the prohibition, but it is clear that it was not developed using the standard tools of halakhic discourse. The only place where the talmudic sages deal with this topic at length, in bArakhin 15b-16a, we find both halakhic and aggadic sayings integrated, with the latter in clear majority (and it is note-worthy that the two main halakhic sayings are permits!). Here, too the halakhic sayings are not attacked and defended, as is familiar to us in the halakhic texts of the Talmud. This fact strengthens the aggadic character of the text, and gives the impression that even the halakhic sayings are not real rules, but rather coincidental examples of the principle. Apart from these, there are several sayings throughout the Talmud indicating that the Sages allowed one to berate and degrade another person in certain mitigating circumstances, which we will dis-cuss in greater detail in section 4. This demonstrates the fact that theydid not conceive the prohibition against libel as categorical.The Sages give us no reasons as to why they decided to develop a certain prohibition as a branch of the halakhah and another norm as a branch of the aggadah. The verse‘‘Thou shalt not go as a talebearer among thy people’’is phrased in normative language that is not much different than‘‘Observe the Sabbath day to keep it holy,’’but the latter was nevertheless transformed by the Sages into a‘‘meager biblical text with plenty of laws,’’while the former remained a‘‘meager biblical text and meager laws.’’Somehow, the intuition of the talmudic authorities taught them that this area is not appropriate for articulated rules, nor for analytical discourse.

The medieval authorities followed the same path, except for one: Rabbi Isaac al-Fasi, the Rif. This halakhic authority’s major work extracted from the Talmud the gist of the legal discussion while filtering out aggadic sayings. Although his work did not include bArakhin, he cited the sayings of the Sages on libel in his rulings on bShabbat,49 so they are included in his legal summary. The inclusion of these sayings within an outright halakhic work constitutes a clear declaration that theauthor sees them as part and parcel of the halakhah.50 The Rif, however, was probably the last major halakhist who viewed the prohibition against libel in this way. If we rely on the conventional classification of books as halakhic or musar, this subject found its place in the latter. Indeed, although Maimonides included it in his halakhic code, the Mishneh Torah,51 and wrote extensively about its severity,52 it appears only in a musar context: first as a small part – six paragraphs – in the section of Hilkhot De‘ot, which, as demonstrated above, is a musar text, and then again in a small paragraph at the end of the laws of the impurity of leprosy, the placement of which also implies its musar-theological character.53 Both texts rely heavily on biblical tales and aggadic literature. In contrast to halakhic convention, Maimonides does not present in these sections the exceptions to the prohibition, except for one (the permission to speak libel in the presence of three or more people),54 but suffices with the presentation of the prohibition itself, together with words of reproach on its severity.These words of reproach, needless to say, are also in the style of the musar genre. All of these facts corroborate the thesis that Maimonides meant to depict libel as a principle, and not to confine it to specific rules. Although there are some hints in Maimonides’ Commentary on the Mishnah that might indicate that he considers the prohibition of libel to be a‘‘morality of duty,’’there are, in my opinion, stronger hints that he classifies it as a‘‘morality of aspiration.’’

In post-Maimonidean literature, where the boundary between halakhah and musar crystallizes, the classification of libel as a part of musar is further strengthened. The authors of the great codes of that period, the Tur and the Shulhan Arukh, did not allocate any room in their comprehensive halakhic works to the issue of libel.56 In contrast, elaborate and systematic discussions on this subject, often in chapters dedicated solely to it, are found in R. Yonah’s Sha‘arei Teshuvah, in the anonymous Orhot Tzaddikim, in R. Yehiel of Rome’sMa‘alot ha-Middot, in the Maharal’s Netivot Olamand in R. Eliyahu de Vidas’ ReshitHokhmah – all outright musar books…

There is also a linguistic indicator, not terribly significant but interesting nonetheless, that the talmudic Sages and the medieval rabbis did not perceive libel as a halakhic prohibition. There is a halakhic category –mumar le-davar ehad(a‘‘habitual sinner with regard to one matter’’) – that relates to a person who repeatedly violates one particular prohibition. There are clear halakhic sanctions that are imposed on individuals who fall into that category, among them the loss of legal credibility in religious spheres that relate to his transgression.58 This category is utilized only with regard to violations of halakhah, and not with regard to violations of musar, even when defined as a duty of aspiration. Thus, for example, we find‘‘habitual sinners’’with regard to idolatry, desecration of the Sabbath, failure to perform circumcision, and the like, but we never hear of the term‘‘habitual sinner’’with regard to not loving God or failing to achieve holiness. So too, we do not find in rabbinic literature the concept of a‘‘habitual sinner with regard to libel’’(mumar le-lashon ha-ra)…

This was the face of the prohibition against libel until the time of the Hafetz Hayim. Yet, for the sake of precision, we must note that the Hafetz Hayim did not initiate the halakhization of libelex nihilo. He was preceded by a few important halakhists, who noticed the lack of‘‘laws of virtues’’in the Shulhan Arukh, and came to‘‘fill the gap.’’It was in this spirit that R. Abraham Gumbiner, known as the Magen Avraham, added a few musar subjects in his interpretation of Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayim}161 (entitled‘‘laws of [fairness in] business’’), and his interpreter, R.Shmuel of Cologne, author of Mahatzit ha-Shekel, followed the same path. In both texts, there are only very short references, mostly repeating Maimonides’ words in Hilkhot De‘ot. Following their model, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Lyadi integrated those instructions in his Shulhan Arukh ha-Rav, where the laws of libel comprise three paragraphs.61 No doubt,these references prepared the ground for the Hafetz Hayim’s project, but were minor in scope and lacked talmudic-style analysis and discussion. Needless to say, they did not have the cultural impact that a book dedicated to a single subject can have. The book that is sometimes mentioned as the precedent to the Hafetz Hayim, R. Raphael of Ham-burg’s Marpe Lashon, is a classical musarstyle book. An approach closer to that of the Hafetz Hayim is demonstrated in a forgotten musar book that was published only 15 years before Hafetz Hayim, entitled Orhot Mesharimby Rabbi Menahem Treivitsch.62 But this book, which was not at all well publicized, was probably not known to the Hafetz Hayim. In any case, it is considered a book of musar rather than a halakhic one.

We may therefore summarize that until the 17th century, the laws of libel were classified clearly as part of musar, not of halakhah. The only possible exception was the Rif, who lived at the end of the Gaonic period, and in this matter his influence was insignificant. From the 17th century and on, a few steps were made toward the halakhization of some musar norms, among them the prohibition against libel, but these were minor and did not considerably change the normative situation.The significant turning point in that direction was made by the Hafetz Hayim, who composed a‘‘Shulhan Arukhof Libel and Talebearing,’’as one of his contemporaries characterized it.65 For this purpose, the Hafetz Hayim needed to develop relatively novel tools, which we will now examine…

Having rejected the path of systematic deduction from the musar principles relating to libel, the Hafetz Hayim adopted two other paths:on the one hand, he turned to halakhic literature and extracted from it short sayings, often sayings that were stated in other contexts, and through exegesis developed them to much larger dimensions than they had in their original sense. On the other hand, he turned tomusarliterature, to theaggadahand even to the Bible, and constructed rulesout of them. He often analyzes these sources legalistically inBe’erMayim Hayimas if they were ordinary halakhic sayings. As I mentioned above, turning to the Bible and the aggada has sources for principles was a common practice of musar literature, but was not at all common in halakhic literature as sources for rules…

More striking than the reliance of the Hafetz Hayim on Sha‘arei Teshuvahis his use of biblical and aggadic texts to derive halakhic rules. The biblical character who is most appropriate for this purpose is Miriam, who, according to the Torah, suffered from leprosy because she spoke libel against her brother, Moses. The Torah commands that the incident be remembered throughout the ages in order to preserve the lesson that it teaches (Num 24:9). On this issue, the Hafetz Hayim establishes a broad exegetical principle:‘‘It is known that we deduce[laws] from everything that was said about Miriam, as it is written:’Remember what the Lord your God did to Miriam’.’’96 He applies this maxim in a list of laws that he derives from the story of Miriam,including the following: that to be guilty of libel, unlike gossip, it is enough to bring others to speak libel, and it need not lead to a quarrel;97 that a person can transgress the prohibition of libel even if he did not intend to hurt the offended party, but only meant to speak the truth, provided that he did not formally rebuke him prior;98that the prohibition of libel applies to relatives, as well;99 that the prohibition of libel applies even if the offended party does not feel offended by it;100 and that the prohibition of libel applies to women as well as to men.101 Yet, the Hafetz Hayim learns not only from the incident of Miriam, but also from countless other biblical stories, as well as from aggadic and midrashic literature…

I again emphasize that the previous are just a few examples among many cases in which the Hafetz Hayimuses biblical and aggadic sources to derive halakhic rules, the second path that I referred to above. Thi spath, which was fruitful in the musar literature as a means of deriving principles, was rarely used to derive laws in the halakhic tradition.Nevertheless, in his work on the issue of libel, the Hafetz Hayim transformed it into the primary method of deriving rules, and applied the classical halakhic analytical techniques to these sources as if they were indeed legal texts. It appears that in certain instances, the Hafetz Hayim takes norms that are explicitly or implicitly considered middat hasidut (pietistic virtue), and transforms them into binding norms…

4. The Tendency of Halakhization: Stringency

There is no question that the halakhization of the area of libel had a significant impact on its content. Essentially, the transition from principles to rules certainly contains the potential for increased stringency, but it also has the potential for increased leniency.Nevertheless, in this instance, there is an added element of the personal approach of the Hafetz Hayim, which significantly strengthened the tendency toward stringency. When discussing criminal (or ethico-religious) norms, the transition from principles to rules is generally a movement toward greater stringency, at least in the particular domain in which it is applied…

Particularly because musar literature urges its readers to aspire to certain principles and goals, it does not have to present the limitations to these principles, nor the competing principles that may need to be balanced with them.

An excellent example of this is Hilkhot De‘otof the Mishneh Torah,in which Maimonides includes only one limitation of the prohibition, even though he certainly was aware of many more.129 The assumption that underlies this phenomenon is that there are so many possible situations in which there will be conflicts between principles, that it would be impossible to clarify all of them. Furthermore, it is impossible to know which principles would take precedence in every possible circumstance. Thus, it is sufficient to inform the reader of the principles, and to encourage him to strive for its fulfillment to the best of his ability. In the codification of rules, on the other hand, the potential conflicts between principles and their resolution in specific circumstances must be expressed, and, in fact, that is one of the very goals of formulating rules. Thus, a halakhic authority who writes about a particular commandment without including its limitations has not been true to his task. In fact, the Hafetz Hayim included at the end of each section of his book a chapter indicating situations in which libel or gossip is permitted.130 Similar elaboration is spread throughout the work. From this standpoint, the halakhization of the prohibition of libel served as a catalyst for the creation of leniencies.

Hayim utilized both options, but the dominant trend in his book is in the direction of stringency.132 This trend finds expression in his effort sto limit the application of a number lenient positions relating to libel in rabbinic literature. The following are several examples of such rabbinic statements that appear to express leniencies regarding the prohibition of libel:A. The Babylonian Talmud explains the statement of Rabbah b. Rav Huna that‘‘anything said in front of three people is not considered libel,’’based on the assumption that it will spread in any case:‘‘Your friend has a friend, and your friend’s friend has afriend.’’133B. Rabbah stated that it is permissible to say libel in front of the offended party:‘‘Anything said in front of the person is not considered libel.’’134 He bases this statement on the opinion of Rabbi Yosi:‘‘I never said anything and turned around.’’Rashi broadens this leniency even further, holding that to remove the statement from the category of libel, it is not necessary for the person to actually say the statement in front of the offended party, but enough that he is prepared to do so.13

C. The Jerusalem Talmud cites the following statement in the name of Rabbi Yonatan:‘‘It is permissible to speak libel about quarrel-mongers.’’136D. bYoma states:‘‘One may publicize the [identity of] hypocrites inorder to prevent desecration of God’s name.’’137E. Rav Ashi stated that‘‘it is permitted to call a person who has acquired a bad reputation a ’gimmel’ora’shin’.’’In other words,one about whom there are negative rumors138 can be degraded and called‘‘son of a whore’’and‘‘son of a rotten one’’(or‘‘son o fa stupid whore,’’or‘‘son of a Gentile,’’or‘‘son of a slave,’’according to other interpretations), which casts aspersions not only on him, but also on his mother.139 Similarly, Rav said:‘‘One may flog a person for negative rumors.’’140 Rashi explains that‘‘a person about whom it is reported that he transgressed is given lashes.’’bM.Q. records a story in which Rabbi Yehudah allowed himself to excommunicate a scholar because‘‘bad rumors had been heard about him’’.141 Also among the rishonim (medieval
rabbis), we find that it was permissible to impose sanctions basedon rumors.F. We often find sages making demeaning comments to their fellow sages. Thus, Rabbi Yehudah ha-Nasi said about his disciple Rabbi Levi that‘‘it appears to me that he has no brain in his skull.’’142 Resh Lakish called two sages‘‘cowherds,’’and they, on their part,saw him as a‘‘a troublesome fellow’’(or‘‘a nuisance’’).143 When Rav Kahana, previously described by Resh Lakish as‘‘a lion,’’did not ask even one critical question in Rabbi Yohanan’s lessons, the latter said:‘‘The lion you mentioned has become a fox.’’144 Rava called Rafram b. Pappa‘‘patya ukhma’’(literally:‘‘black pot,’’but the pun alludes to ’fool’) and castigated Rav Illish as being like‘‘dayanei hatzatzta’’(according to Rashbam – incompetent judges who decide the cases by dividing the sum in dispute in half).145 The term‘‘Bavla’ei tipsha’ei’’(foolish Babylonians) appears often as a derisive label for Babylonian sages.146 Indeed, we may find many more expressions of this type in rabbinic literature.

When viewing all of these statements together, one gets the strong sense that the Rabbis viewed libel as a prohibition to which quite a few limitations are attached, and consequently as a relative one. This point strengthens the assumption that they saw it as a principle that at times had to be balanced with other principles. As such, it was not necessary to formulate as rules how to resolve conflicts between libel and other principles. However, in addition to expressing the normative status of this prohibition, these statements also provide a window into thecultural world of the Rabbis, a world in which rumors were considered a legitimate, and at times necessary, element of communication – i.e., that the degradation of an individual by means of rumors was considered a normal social sanction and not libel. It seems that the Rabbis allowed acertain level of offensive expression against one whose behavior was deemed inappropriate, and that the parameters that they established for themselves were only slightly higher than the standard accepted in society in general. Although the medieval commentators subsequently tended to interpret these norms in a more limited fashion, they still did not establish for themselves an unreasonable standard, as is clear in the parameters that they utilized for expressing themselves in their own internal discourse. It was not uncommon for them to exchange sharp comments in the heat of their controversies. The harsh comments of the Rabad against Maimonides and the severe remarks of Nachmanides against Rabbi Zerahiah ha-Levi are well known. Apparently, they did not view this as a violation of the prohibition of libel.Post-talmudic rabbinic literature could have utilized these statements to derive a host of leniencies regarding the prohibition of libel. In addition, since several of these statements refer to the public interest,they might have been utilized for a modernistic interpretation promoting a doctrine similar to that of freedom of speech in modern law. Nevertheless, the post-talmudic authorities did not try to extend these openings for leniency. On the contrary, they tried to limit them. As previously stated, rabbinic literature in the Middle Ages for the most part attempted to restrict the application of these statements through interpretation. The Hafetz Hayim took this trend to an extreme and tried as much as possible to neutralize or minimize them…

In general, it is enough to take a quick glance at the two chapters in the Hafetz Hayimon permits for speaking libel and for speaking gossip,to discern that the author’s approach is to create a series of stipulations that restrict their application.195 For example, the permit to speak libel in order to help a person who has been harmed is qualified by seven conditions: that the person speaking saw the harm himself, and did not hear it from others; that he clarified that the incident was indeed within the category of damage; that he tried first to rebuke the perpetrator; that the libel will not increase the damage; that his intention is to be helpful, and‘‘not God forbid to benefit from the flaw that he causes to his friend’’; that there is no alternative way to rectify the situation; that the harm caused to the perpetrator not be greater than the harm that he had caused. On this the Hafetz Hayim adds the somewhat strange condition that the person who tells the libel be on a higher ethico-religious level than the person about whom he tells it.196 A similar list can be found in the laws of gossip.197 These conditions are practically impossible to fulfill, but the Hafetz Hayim emphasizes that ‘‘one must be very careful in this permit that none of the above details are lacking.’’

…The Hafetz Hayim does not relate at all to freedom of the press inhis work on libel, nor does he refer to newspapers or other more advanced forms of communication. It is important to point out that the question was clearly relevant at his time, for in the year that his book was published (1873), a number of Jewish periodicals flourished in the Russian Empire in Yiddish, Hebrew, and Russian. He reserved dealing with them to later publications and letters, in which he expressed a sweeping ban on reading newspapers.232 There is no indication that this ban excluded ultra-orthodox newspapers or other‘‘kosher’’journals.This prohibition was so extreme that even the Hafetz Hayim could not maintain it. We know of quite a few instances from his later years in which he wrote to Orthodox newspapers in Poland,233 and of several instances in which he responded to articles that had been published insecular or Haskalah newspapers.234 In general, he negates the value of ‘‘the right of the public to know,’’even in absolutely public issues. For example, the rabbinic prohibition for a judge to reveal to a defendant after the trial that he advocated a minority opinion to exonerate235 is extended by the Hafetz Hayim to other public institutions and to non-judicial processes.236

Neither did the Hafetz Hayim relate at all to academic freedom or art criticism, ideas that were completely foreign to his cultural world.The tension between freedom of expression and libel arises most strongly with regard to the study of history. Given the prohibition expressed by the Hafetz Hayim to speak libel about the deceased237 and his very limited definition of significant outcomes that might justify libel, not only is it clear that he would limit academic freedom in this regard, but he applies these concepts even to biographies of the traditional type. Moreover, even when the rabbinic Sages saw fit to denigrate a contemporary, the Hafetz Hayim was careful to make sure that it not be extrapolated to create a more general permit.

…A study of the halakhization of the prohibition of libel is not complete without a discussion of the issue of sanctions. In most modern legal systems, the publication of libel is considered both a criminal offense and a civil wrong. In the Talmud, by contrast, it is considered a‘‘negative commandment that does not relate to an act.’’As a result, it carries no corporeal punishment or compensation for damages.246 Nevertheless, already in the times of the Geonim, ordinances were enacted that imposed excommunication on one who acted abusively toward another, and in later generations we find the imposition of flagellation, compensation, and public apology.247 Very surprisingly,the Hafetz Hayim does not relate at all, either positively or negatively,to the issue of punishment, and gives no references to sources that deal with the issue. This is a resounding silence.

Marc B. Shapiro writes in Changing the Immutable: “Much of what the Hafets Hayim includes in his halakhic codification of leshon hara was not regarded by earlier sources as having real halakhic standing… Not noted by Brown is R. Jacob Emden’s view that you an speak leshon hara about someone who has ‘sinned’ against you. See his note on Mishnah Avot 1:17 in the Vilna Romm edition of the Talmud, and the complete version of this note (from manuscript) published in Emden, Megilat sefer, 6.” (113)

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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