Worse than Murder
Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim
The Torah reading of Tazria describes skin conditions which miraculously afflict those who engage in evil speech, Lashon Hara. As one of a few sins that meets with a divine affliction, Lashon Hara must be s severe crime.
Maimonides says Lashon Hara equates to sexual immorality, idolatry and murder: three sins causing punishment here, and the loss of Olam Haba, the afterlife. What is his equation?
As God structured all laws, there must be great insights 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.
The Torah Prohibition
The primary source for any Torah law is derived from the Five Books of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy). Other references to that law from Prophets or Writings only elaborate that primary law, but cannot be the original source of a command.
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.” Maimonides explains (Hilchos Dayos 7:1) 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 character assassination. When we slander, on some level we wish the demise of the person 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 what lurks inside the gossiper, this instigator? Let’s list the other three subcategories of Richiluss first. 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—Master of Lashon Hara.” Why is this its own category? Maimonides defines this infraction as this:
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.
King David on Lashon Hara
“God should cut off all those with smooth lips, tongues that speak grandiose matters.” 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 “God” is included here to pinpoint the sin…
Imperfect man wishes self-aggrandizement. Egos are very powerful, always seeking satisfaction. And when one senses someone he estimates (correctly or not) is superior, his ego senses a threat and goes into defense mode. But perfected people 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 competition and advantage, but rather, he should seek God and be humble.
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, one may project a grandiose self-image. He imagines he inflates his greatness…cause much damage. That is the first lesson of “with our tongues we will become powerful.” But this is all imagination. For intelligent people who see others boast, know that reality has not elevated such boasters. The only realm in which the boaster is greater is his own imagination.
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 under his control, is his right to do with as he pleases. Another aspect of the ego is thereby unveiled: limitless rights. Since “my lips are mine, I can do with them as I please” he feels. The ego does not accept opposition. It wants complete reign. Case and point: A lecturer in his fifties succumbed to an intolerant, screaming frenzy when someone much younger than himself corrected him during his lecture. Such types wish their words went unopposed. They do not seek truth, but rather, a platform for projecting their “greatness.” “Who will rule over us!” 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 So Many Types?
Why must a person ridicule others? This stems from one’s own insecurities. Had he valued studying God and His creations, instead of elevating his reputation, he would not need to reduce others to elevate the self. The gossiper is an insecure person who unloads news on others whom he hopes might side with him.
But we can violate gossiping 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 and 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?
The Bal Lashon Hara does is clever. He doesn’t 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. He desires to obliterate the individual. 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 another person.
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?”
Rabbi Israel Chait taught that just 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 to find a reason or any benefit. Just as the snake bites not for eating purposes, but merely to afflict, man as well has a desire 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.
Rabbi Chait explained this to mean 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 is generated by strong, almost unavoidable 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 the same: man unleashing 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. Man circumvents reality and imagine an alternative reality. Some pray to Jesus to save them. Many actually feel he does, although nothing in reality validates this. Others think amulets are protective. This is idolatry, where one does not seek any reasonable lifestyle, but imaginary protection. Since reason is not engaged, sinners are not discouraged when told that statues are inanimate. That does not register. When being idolatrous, one does not seek evidence. Now let’s apply this to Lashon Hara.
When one speaks Lashon Hara, he harnesses speech to cater to that delusional egotistical world. One who lives competitively, feels threatened by greater individuals and therefore needs to “correct” this. So he speaks derogatorily to those who will share his resentment. In his mind, the target person suffered a downfall. The sinner now feels on top; the world is good again. When we view human insecurity 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 may not deserve it, and we outlet base emotions like animals, without thinking. If someone is wrong, we must withdraw and allow God to mange His creations’ reward and punishment. It’s not our battle, unless we were wronged and then we must defend ourselves from harm, or if we feel we can help the person by waiting for an opportunity time to help them see their error.
Lashon Hara rejects God’s will that we abandon petty issues, when we should 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. Because of its subtleties, we must be all the more sensitive to our motives when we talk…and talk only when necessary.
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 that God created us not to focus on ourselves, but on Him and His wisdom. We will then view ourselves properly: “And the man Moses was exceedingly humble from all men that are on face of the Earth” (Num. 12:3).