There’s much to discuss regarding the prohibition and appeal of Lashon Hara. From the ease of violation, to the profound words of our Rabbis and Sages addressing our human nature. What is so wrong with Lashon Hara? What is the appeal? Why does Maimonides say it equates to sexual immorality, idolatry and murder: three sins causing punishment here, and the loss of Olam Haba?
As God structured all laws, there must be great insight; far surpassing our simple understanding of “degrading others”. Hopefully the sources quoted herein will sensitize us to the damage we cause others, and ourselves, acting as a deterrent.
A Rabbi once taught that the primary source for any Torah law is derived from the Five Books. Other quotes from Prophets or Writings will further embellish, explain and elaborate that primary message and additional facets.
Leviticus 19:16 says, “Do not go as a talebearer in your people, and do not stand by the blood of your friend, I am God”. In Hilchos Dayos 7:1 Maimonides explains why the talebearer is placed in the same verse as a murderer: it is because from the tales we spread, we can cause many deaths. Maimonides cites the example of Doeg the Edomite whose words – although not negative in themselves – caused the murders of many innocents. We may also add that slander is an act of assassination; character assassination. When we slander, on some level we wish the demise of the personality we attack. King Solomon said one has thrown arrows at the other party.
Maimonides states that this case of Doeg is an example of the head category, “Richiluss”. Richiluss is the act transferring private information from one to another; that which is not yet public knowledge. The Rabbis argue whether this information must be negative, or as Maimonides teaches, even neutral information. But all agree that the violation is in spreading gossip. Maimonides already explained what is so negative about this: many can die. But is there something negative lurking inside the “one who spreads” gossip, inside this instigator? Let’s list the other three subcategories of Richiluss first. And they are subcategories, since they are only quantitatively different from Richiluss.
Richiluss is spreading information, but the “manner” in which we do so may come under one of the three other headings. Maimonides then formulates the second category, “There is yet another sin much greater than this, in this category, and it is called Lashon Hara. It is the act of speaking of the negative aspects of one’s friend, even though he speaks the truth.” Maimonides’ third category is Motzei Shame Ra, or character assassination. This refers to one who spreads lies about others. But quite interesting is Maimonides’ fourth and final category, “Bal Lashon Hara”, or the “Master of Lashon Hara”. Why is this its own category? Maimonides defines this infraction as, “One who sits and recites matters about another, that his forefathers were such and such people, and that he heard certain matters concerning him, and all he says are matters of derision. On this [case] does the Torah say, ‘God should cut off all those with smooth lips, tongues that speak grandiose matters.’(Psalms 12:4).” Let’s start to understand Lashon Hara.
This verse in Psalms commences with “God”. Why is this so? Many verses in the Torah that cite evildoers merely address the evil, and God is not mentioned in the verse. I believe the reason God is included here, is precisely to the point of the sin: man wishes self-aggrandizement. Our egos are very powerful, always seeking satisfaction. And when we sense someone whom we estimate (correctly or not) is superior to ourselves, our egos sense a threat and go into defense mode…unless we have come to learn that competition is against the goals of the Torah. Therefore, King David carefully wrote, “God should cut off all those with smooth lips, tongues that speak grandiose matters”. God is mentioned, as a purposeful ‘contrast’ to the sinful objective of the talebearer, whom King David says wishes to “speak grandiose matters”. The speaker is attempting to elevate himself. Therefore, King David pits God against man in this verse to highlight the issue. Man should not seek competitive advantage, but rather, he should seek God.
The next verse in Psalms continues this theme: “That they say, ‘With our tongues we shall become powerful; our lips are with us, who will rule over us!’.” (Maimonides states that these people deny God, as they say, “Who will rule over us!”) What are the additional aspects of the sin highlighted in this second verse of Psalms?
The ego senses that with the power of speech, we may project a grandiose image of ourselves: we can manipulate how others see reality…how WE see reality, and we can cause much damage. That is the first lesson of “with our tongues we will become powerful.”
Then they say something strange, “Our lips are with us”. Who else would they be with? But this unveils a deep emotion. Man feels that what is in his control, is his right to do with as he pleases. Another aspect of the ego is thereby unveiled: total domination. Since “my lips are mine, I can do with them as I please” he feels. The ego does not want to be opposed by another. The self wants complete reign. Case and point: I once witnessed a lecturer in his fifties go into an intolerant, screaming frenzy when someone much younger than himself corrected him during his class. Such types wish their words went unopposed. They do not seek truth, but rather, a platform for projecting their “greatness”. The last words embody their goal, “Who will rule over us!” That is not a question. They are saying, “no one will rule over us!” Lashon Hara seeks unrivaled expression, and pity the person who stands in opposition.
We must realize this unruly part of human nature. “Sin” has many references: mistake, crookedness, and wantonness. This last one is called “peshah”, and what we address here: the unruly tendency.
Why must a person ridicule others? This stems from one’s own insecurities. Had he realized that his life’s goal is to study God and His creations, and not elevate his reputation among men, he would not need to reduce others to elevate the self. The insecurity he feels about himself originates in his state of mind where social status is more important than enjoying God’s wisdom. Therefore, the gossiper is an insecure person. The gossiper also unloads his or her news on others due to this insecurity, and seeks out others who might side with their attraction to such news.
But we can violate gossip in four ways. Richiluss is when we contribute to defaming others, although we do not necessarily utter negative words, like the case of Doeg above. We are instigators. But our corruption is present. We are merely distributors of what we hear. Lashon Hara is when we actually talk negatively, originating the content, citing truths. And Motzei Sham Ra is when we lie.
But what is the difference between Lashon Hara, and Bal Lashon Hara? Maimonides tells us that the Bal Lashon Hara talks about the person’s forefathers. That seems quite odd. What does this have to do with the slanderer’s attempt to destroy another person?
It appears to me, that what the Bal Lashon Hara does is quite sharp. He seeks not to take a single jab, as does the Lashon Hara individual. No, the Bal Lashon Hara is not seeking to vent against another person, but desires to completely ruin the other party. He doesn’t mean to tarnish one’s reputation, but to throw a knockout blow. This is a totally different type of viciousness. The other party must be removed. And how does he do this? By saying that his very “inception” was evil, “Look at who his parents were!” With such a statement, he gives the listeners no chance to view him in a good light. “He came from bad blood” as they say. “He is essentially no good.” The Bal Lashon Hara most closely approximates the act of murder, as he seeks to thoroughly destroy every aspect of another human being.
We briefly noted that viciousness is part of the sin. Talmud Archin 15b cites a metaphor: “In the future, all beasts will approach the snake and ask, ‘The lion tramples and eats, the wolf tears and eats…of what benefit then is there to you snake, that you bite, and do not eat? The snake will reply, ‘And of what benefit is there to man who speaks evil?” A Rabbi once lectured on this metaphor. He taught that the same as the snake has no motive in biting and does so by nature alone, so too, man is vicious by nature. There is no need for any benefit. Just as the snake bites not for eating purposes, but merely to afflict, man as well has in his nature to be vicious. In that Talmudic portion, God metaphorically says, “What more can I do to prevent Lashon Hara? I created the limbs upright, but the tongue lying down [to keep it dormant]. All limbs are external, but the tongue is inside (to restrain it). I created around the tongue, a wall of bones [teeth] and a wall of flesh [lips] [to halt Lashon Hara].” The Rabbi said this teaches that speaking Lashon Hara is practically unavoidable, as if God did all He can do, with no success. Of course, since we receive great punishment for Lashon Hara, we are to blame. But this portion has one message: Lashon Hara caters to strong impulses. Therefore, we must be stronger, and more knowledgeable so as to fight it.
Why does Maimonides say Lashon Hara equates to sexual immorality, idolatry and murder: three sins causing punishment here, and the loss of Olam Haba?
What is murder? It is the attempt to eliminate another from one’s reality. Lashon Hara does the same; one reduces another with speech.
Sexual immorality is man’s unbridled instinctual expression. Lashon Hara too is man fully expressing his instinctual drives of aggression, ego, and other drives. But how is Lashon Hara akin to idolatry?
What is idolatry? It is not the mere prostration to stone or metal statues. Idolatry is an attempt to view reality as “we wish”. It is where man seeks to validate his infantile fantasies, projecting them onto his daily activities, making them “objective” reality, and no longer subjective whims. The goal of satisfying my wishes is the focus. Man is seeking to circumvent reality, which “gets in his way”.
For example, I may be a meek individual, and wish to be protected from others harming me. I will do all I can to assume this protection is in place. I don’t care “how” this protection aids me, as long as it does. So I pray to Jesus to offer me his shelter. I actually feel he does. I have thereby violated idolatry. I am not seeking any reasonable lifestyle, but rather, I seek the “goal” of a certain good I want for myself. Since I don’t seek reason, I am not discouraged when people tell me that statues are inanimate. That does not register. When being idolatrous, I assume a reality, which is unsubstantiated by what is real and evident. Now let’s apply this to Lashon Hara…
When I speak Lashon Hara, again, my starting point is that I feel a certain way towards others. This is the reality I live in, and I use speech to cater to that delusional world. In reality, Charlie is a great guy, and helps others genuinely. But in “my world”, he has surpassed me, I feel threatened since I concern myself with competition, and now I need to “correct” this. I assume my speech has a reductive quality on Charlie’s value. So I say things that are true about him, but to those who will similarly sense resentment. His “downfall” is soon at hand. I now feel the “world” is good again. When we view human nature this way, we realize how nonsensical evil speech is.
We now appreciate how we are so corrupt when we cater to Lashon Hara. We live in a fantasy world; we desire to hurt others who do not deserve it; and we outlet base emotions like animals, without thinking. We reject God’s plan to abandon petty issues and strive towards perfection. Lashon Hara also seems to go unnoticed; as we speak so much, and we deny we did anything wrong with those few words about Charlie. Because of its subtleties, we must be all the more sensitive to our motives when we talk.
We can correct our tongues, only after we correct our hearts. And the competitive emotion that drives us to seek fame and honor is at the root of this sin. If we study Torah properly, we will realize the repeated, underlying message, stated at least once openly, “And the man Moses was exceedingly humble from all men that are on face of the Earth”. (Num. 12:3)