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Gossip, the Anti-Torah

http://www.bizdevblog.com/bizdevblog/images/istockphoto_gossip.jpgNot too long ago, I posted about Rudeness All Around: Loud Public Cellphone Talking, Texting During Services as a way of opening up a conversation about texting, cell phoning and other activities that fragment the common decency upon which civil society depends.  It led me to a conversation about Lashon Harah, gossip, as a nefarious force which undermines community. 

Recently I learned that our ancient rabbis recognized this same danger, branding gossip (in not so many words) as the “anti-Torah.”  My colleague Dr. Judith Abrams, founder of Maqom, a program for spiritual searching and serious Talmud study, illuminating the Talmudic Teaching (originally posted on Tzei ul’mad: A Blog of Continuing Jewish Learning).

One of the things I love about studying Talmud is that it’s like a kaleidoscope: take a look, shake it up, turn it around, take another look and you see a whole new picture.

We all know that there are 4 things that benefit you here and in the world to come:

  1. honoring father and mother
  2. doing deeds of kindness
  3. bringing peace between people and
  4. the study of Torah is equal to them all. (Mishnah Peah 1:1)

The (Talmud) Yerushalmi, in its gemara to this mishnah, shakes the kaleidoscope and show us the other side of this teaching, i.e., the four things that hurt you here and in the world to come:

  1. idolatry
  2. murder
  3. inappropriate sexual relations
  4. lashon hara (gossip) is equal to them all. (Yerushalmi Peah 1:1, 8a1 in the Artscroll Elucidation)

Each of the four good things is paired with its photo-negative. The links are easy to see: Honoring ones parents includes honoring one’s divine parent, i.e., God. So idolatry is the anti-honoring parent deed. Deeds of kindness show we treasure life. Murder, of course, is the farthest from that that we can get. Peace between people depends on appropriate boundaries and inappropriate sexuality dismisses such boundaries as meaningfless. What I especially love is that gossip turns out to be the photo-negative of Torah study. It’s words that can do so much good or so much harm.

But here’s the real catch-22: according to the (Talmud) Bavli (Baba Batra 164b-165a), everyone gossips to some extent every single day. Unless you’re going to stay in a cave somewhere and never speak again, your going to at least do the “dust of lashon hara” everyday. Since you couldn’t live anywhere near a complete Jewish life in such isolation, there’s only one thing to do: add more Torah words to your life. In that context, Torah study isn’t just a good thing…it’s the one thing that tips the balance back into your favor, shoring up the imbalance that inevitably follows gossip.

So Torah study isn’t just good for you lishmah…it compensates for lashon hara.

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