Lashon ha-ra, #MeToo, and the Jewish Community:
An Incomplete Agenda
By Robert Tabak
At the recent conference of Neshama: Association of Jewish Chaplains (May 2019), one of the honored speakers, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, based his talk in part on his newly revised book, Words That Hurt, Words That Heal: How the Words that You Choose Shape Your Destiny. He was kind enough to provide copies for conference attendees. Rabbi Telushkin opened his talk with a discussion of lashon ha-ra, [literally “evil speech’] a central concept in Judaism. He defined lashon ha-ra, in line with most traditional sources, as speech about someone that is true (as opposed to malicious lies) but that causes them pain or harm.
But the great weight given to this value in liberal as well as traditional branches of Judaism has begun to weigh on me. Needless repetition of petty foibles or mistakes can be harmful. But there are serious critiques of this over-burdened value. One significant critique has been made by feminists, who have pointed out that many parts of what (male) rabbis defined as lashon ha-ra or gossip were what in women’s conversation were forms of networking, sharing communal news, and building mutual support.
A second major critique is one that I shared in the question period at the conference. Hasn’t an emphasis on lashon ha-ra been used, especially by male Jewish leaders, to silence reports of harassment, misconduct, and abuse? Hasn’t this value, covered with an added layer of the alleged danger of revelations being a “shonde” [Yiddish, a “shame” – i.e. in the eyes of non-Jews] been used by too many Jewish organizations, their funders, or leaders to block action against abusers and abusive systems?
Rabbi Telushkin himself in his book devotes a chapter to the question, “When, If Ever, Is it Appropriate to Reveal Information That Will Humiliate or Harm Another?” This chapter begins with a header citing, “Do not stand by while your neighbor’s blood is shed,” (Lev. 19:16), a potential counterweight to this value. Rabbi Telushkin’s chapter is disappointing. It does mention sexual harassment as an example when revealing disparaging information is justified (pp.159-60). However, even this chapter’s title fails to recognize the vulnerabilities and pain of victims – mostly, though not always, women and children in our society – and focuses instead on potential “harm or humiliation” to an alleged perpetrator.
The related mitzvah in the next biblical verse of tokhecha – rebuking someone for misconduct – (Lev. 19:17) also offers a potential balance to the idea of lashon ha-ra. However, as classically interpreted this is usually restricted to private one-on-one communication, presumably with a peer. (See for example Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Deot, 6:7. I am grateful to Rabbi Rachel Zerin of Providence RI for teaching on and sharing a source sheet on tokhecha.)
Citing (correctly or not) these mitzvot, “leaders” often silence people (in particular women, but also other would-be advocates) with the explicit or implicit message that publicizing or reporting serious misconduct is something only a “bad Jew” would do. The victim, or the witness, by revealing misconduct, becomes the guilty party in this version.
Chaplains are potentially among those who cause harassment or abuse (the situation addressed most directly in the NAJC ethics code); chaplains may be victims themselves of harassment, abuse, or discrimination; and chaplains may be witnesses to such actions (recent or long ago) in either their pastoral encounters or in their roles as staff members of agencies, hospitals, and other entities. Similarly, other Jewish communal professionals may be the cause of harassment or abuse; the victims of such actions; or the witnesses to this behavior.
Shouldn’t the NAJC – which requires an annual ethics statement from its own members – be part of emerging Jewish coalitions to change the Jewish community? Shouldn’t our commitment to meeting people where they are (ba’asher hu sham – Gen. 21:17) lead us to respect victims and bystanders, whatever their age or gender or sexual orientation, more than those who have caused them harm?
We at the NAJC, and the wider Jewish community, need to develop more complex discussion of lashon ha-ra and other critical issues. We need to bring in speakers and resources from a variety of Jewish movements and perspectives, including those who challenge a patriarchal version of Jewish values that tends to silence or diminish women and their concerns.
Resources toward our incomplete agenda
Following the activism of the “MeToo/Gam Ani” movements, numerous Jewish resources have been created. I wanted to share a few of them. Many of these websites are open to multiple articles with perspectives by writers from a variety of backgrounds. These are only a starting point.
1. The SafetyRespectEquity coalition works to ensure safe, respectful and equitable Jewish workplaces and communal spaces by addressing sexual harassment, sexism and gender discrimination. Dozens of individuals and major Jewish foundations support this effort, and many Jewish organizations have adopted its principles as goals. An extensive resource section is: https://safetyrespectequity.org/resources/
2. Creating Sacred Spaces: Preventing Institutional Abuse in Jewish Communities https://www.jewishsacredspaces.org is another coalition effort with numerous resources.
3. The Reconstructionist Rabbinical College’s Center on Ethics has put together a probing series of questions and posted many articles by people from various perspectives on these topics. For example, “Too often, Jewish values around ethics of speech have constrained victims and bystanders from speaking out. How do we balance the value of an alleged abuser’s good name with the ethical imperatives to seek justice and prevent harm?” https://www.reconstructingjudaism.org/center-jewish-ethics/jewish-ethics-and-metoo
4. Hadar offers: https://www.hadar.org/torah-resource/rabbinic-voices-sexual-assault
5. Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance: https://www.jofa.org/jofa-blog-reading-group
6. Litith Magazine: https://www.lilith.org/blog/tag/metoo/
7. The Central Conference of American Rabbis: https://www.ccarnet.org/sermons-and-text-study/
8. Jewish Women International: https://www.jwi.org/metoo-consulting-training
Rabbi Robert Tabak, PhD, BCC was a staff chaplain at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania for many years. He has served on the ethics committees of Neshama: Association of Jewish Chaplains and of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association. He was a commentator for the “Ethics of Speech” section of A Guide to Jewish Practice: Volume 1-Everyday Living by David A. Teutsch (Reconstructionist Rabbinical College Press, 2011.) He lives in Philadelphia. An earlier version of this article appeared in the NAJC newsletter, June 2019. http://jewishchaplain.net/newsletter-sivan5779/