Love, Hate and the Weaponization of Language

Rabbi Richard Borah

Our sages are in agreement that the phenomenon of tzaras, often mistranslated as "leprosy", is not the result of a natural disease process, but an openly miraculous occurrence by which a Jewish person receives visible lesions on his or her skin, clothing or home's walls as an indication of and punishment for the person speaking in a destructive manner towards his or her fellow Jew (lashon hara). Unlike other bodily disorders, this affliction is limited to the Jewish people in times when God performs open miracles in their midst. The Rambam writes in his "Guide for the Perplexed:

All agree that leprosy is a punishment for slander. The disease begins in the walls of the houses. If the sinner repents, the objective is attained: if he remains in his disobedience, the disease affects his bed and house furniture: if he still continues to sin, the leprosy attacks his own garments, and then his body. This is a miracle received in our nation by tradition...(Guide III:47)

Indications that tzaras is the result of lashon hara include Miriam being punished with this malady after speaking disparagingly about her brother Moses' celibacy. She did not acknowledge the unique quality of Moses' level of prophecy which required him to be continually in a state of readiness for prophetic communication.

Judaism seems quite unique in stressing the potential weaponizing of language as the most widespread and destructive of the many ways that human being harm and destroy each other. It is a perspective that is quite the opposite of the common wisdom reflected in the well-known phrase "sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never harm me". In many cases the Torah considers the sin of lashon hara as a greater evil than a physical attack or a financial crime perpetuated against a person. A person who habitually speaks disparagingly of other Jewish people is said to have no place in olam haba (the afterlife). The speaker of lashon hara is considered ethically, if not legally, equivalent to someone who violates the 3 sins for which a Jew is required to die rather than commit them (idolatry, murder and certain sexual prohibitions). At first appearance it seems to be just a bit too much! Is speaking disparagingly really that destructive? Is it really such an indication of a flaw in the Jewish person's nature that the miraculous disorder of tzaras is warranted to indicate and to combat it? Why?

To clarify the power of lashon hara to destroy one might cite cases where lashon hara results in the loss of someone's life, such as talking about how your neighbor is doing something that the government authorities or the neighbors' enemies hear about and kill them. It may also, depending on the case, result in financial loss, if the lashon hara results in a person being fired from his or her job or having business problems as a result of the things that are spoken. But most cases of lashon hara do not, it seems to me, result in these dire consequences. In addition, if you asked most people whether they would rather be slapped hard in the face or have gossip spoken about them, most would prefer the later.

I think we may obtain some direction in understanding the Torah's severe perspective on lashon hara by looking into perhaps the most impactful and strange case of lashon hara in the history of the Jewish people. This case is that of the 12 spies who went to scout out the land of Israel and report back to Moses and the Jewish people about it. This pivotal event resulted in the original brief trek through the desert to Israel being transformed to a 40 year journey, during which all adult Jewish men at the time of the spies’ lashon hara would die before the Jewish people could enter the Holy Land. (Certain individuals and groups were excepted from this decree because of their rejection of the lashon hara that 10 of the 12 spies spoke about the land of Israel. But the vast majority of the Jewish men died as a punishment for listening to this lashon hara. The Torah relates what the spies said to the Jewish people:

We are unable to go up against the people, for they are stronger than we. They spread an (evil) report (debat ha-aretz) about the land they had scouted, telling the children of Israel, “The land we passed through to explore is a land that consumes its inhabitants, and all the people we saw in it are men of stature. There we saw the giants, the sons of Anak, descended from the giants. In our eyes, we seemed like grasshoppers, and so we were in their eyes” (BaMidbar 13:31-33).

Leaving aside for the moment the question of whether lashon hara against a land is consistent with the laws of lashon hara against a person, this example of the spies speaking against the land of Israel opens up the underlying emotions that propels one to speak it as well as the nature of the damage that results from listening to it. Underlying lashon hara is a profound sense of insecurity about one's own value and capability. It is a sin whose aggression against the other is an expression of the lashon hara speaker's doubts about one's own worth. Just as the spies felt like tiny insects in the presence of the inhabitants of Canaan, the lashon hara speaker suffers from a particular or general lack of self-worth which makes them feel the need to denigrate the other who they fear and see as something of a formidable enemy or opponent.

Regarding the damage done by lashon hara we can glean from the episode of the spies that this particular sin's major impact is not physical or financial damage, at least not directly. What lashon hara is most effective at damaging is the listeners' attitudes and perspectives about the person being disparaged. It is the listener's newly formed negative attitude towards the victim of lashon hara that affectively destroys the possibility of a relationship of "loving one's fellow as oneself". This benevolent perspective is the foundational principle underlying the Jewish person's feeling and actions towards other Jews and is absolutely essential for the Jewish nation to fulfill its God-given role as a light to the nations, to be a model for all the world regarding how a community succeeds in living a life of ethical monotheism in peace and with justice and kindness prevailing in all elements of its society.