Weighing Our Words (And Tweets)

RIETS Rosh Yeshiva Explores Modern Challenges of Lashon Hara in New Book

The prohibition against lashon hara—derogatory speech—is an essential component of proper interpersonal conduct for religious Jews, but even for those with the best intentions, it can often be a struggle. How do you know when what you want to say is permissible or when it might be needlessly harmful? What if it’s necessary to convey negative information about someone or something—what is the right way to do it? Add to that decision-making process the rapid changes in the way we receive and pass on information in the age of social media and the mitzvah of lashon hara can seem almost paralyzing.

Rabbi Daniel Feldman
Rabbi Daniel Feldman

Rabbi Daniel Z. Feldman, rosh yeshiva at Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, seeks to clarify these often confusing real-life dilemmas by examining the prohibition’s halachic sources with applications to today’s technology-driven world in his new book, False Facts and True Rumors: Lashon HaRa in Contemporary Culture(Maggid Books & Michael Scharf Publication Trust YU Press, November 2015). Combining erudite knowledge of rabbinic texts and philosophy as well as advances in psychology’s understanding of the human mind, Rabbi Feldman navigates an otherwise-uncharted area of modern Jewish life for readers and demonstrates that the laws of lashon hara, while unquestionably complicated, are both more relevant and more realistic than ever.

YU News sat down with Rabbi Feldman to discuss how the mitzvah relates to online communication, what secular sources can add to our observance of its laws, and what to do when situations turn tricky.

Observing the laws of lashon hara has always been of central importance in Judaism, but it’s also always been a challenge. Can you talk about exactly what makes this topic so difficult, not only in terms of implementing in in our day-to-day lives, but also with regards to educating our children and others?

It’s a challenge because it comes up in every area of life on a daily basis, and it’s never simple. It’s very often a judgment call. Sometimes what we want to say is not only permissible but also justified and necessary; sometimes it’s completely unjustified, and to be able to tell the difference takes a lot of sensitivity and discretion. And that’s why I think mastering the laws of lashon hara is really a lifelong process of refining that sensitivity and trying to develop a sense of when something is fair, necessary and accurate. It’s easy to make a mistake in either direction.

Part of the challenge is knowing how your words will be taken and knowing not only what to say but trying to understand how what you say will be received by others, trying to interpret what you yourself hear, and trying to stress something enough to make it useful but not enough to make it unjustifiably harmful. That takes a lot of judgment.

In terms of education, halachic authorities vigorously debate which is better: emphasizing the idea of holding back from saying negative things and not focusing so much on the fact that it’s sometimes necessary because that might come across as a mixed message, or emphasizing at earlier ages that it’s equally important to speak up when the information is crucial and relevant. The fact that this is debated so heatedly shows you just how complex the issues involved are.

Your sources range from the rabbinic to the psychological and everything in between. How does your book examine lashon hara from new perspectives which are especially relevant to a modern reader?

I think often lashon hara is felt to be a religious idea that doesn’t work so well with the necessities of living in the actual world. Yet a lot of the literature in other disciplines in recent years has enlightened us on why we need to be even more careful than we’ve been in the past regarding our speech. One of the fundamental elements of the prohibition of lashon hara is that a lot of what we think is true or accurate often turns out not to be so true or accurate. So it deepens our understanding of the mitzvah to know that, for example, according to recent publications in fields like psychology and sociology, there are many different aspects of how our minds work that lead us to believe things that aren’t exactly accurate. Very often we’re convinced that were saying something that’s true, or remembering something true, or understood something accurately, and it’s not the case.

Another example of how science can shed light on this topic, particularly with regards to the development of social media and modern technology, is something called “the disinhibition effect.” Psychologists have determined that when one is writing on a computer screen, not in the physical presence of other people and not seeing their reactions, one often finds themselves capable of saying things they wouldn’t other say and inflicting damage they wouldn’t otherwise because they feel quite literally disinhibited from the consequences, and therefore to whatever extent there may have been appropriate restraint beforehand, sometimes that is reduced in the context of the Internet. And that’s something that has to be corrected for.

The more we’re able to understand just how much elements of human thinking are at the core of laws of lashon hara, the more we’ll be able to appreciate why they are there, and be able to incorporate them into our lives and language.

How do things like social media and the Internet influence the way we should observe these laws?

The Internet and social media have greatly shifted the challenges, providing us with great opportunities for benefit but also very significantly altering our environment. To apply some of the literature that was written long before the invention of something like social media can be a struggle in the modern era.

At the end of the day, while a lot of what’s out there can be important for us to know, beneficial to society, or important for protecting us and others, there’s also a strong possibility that the information we find online can be outright false, taken out of context, or only a partial story. I think one of the most important responsibilities of this generation is that we have a greater obligation to be educated consumers and have a strong awareness of how to balance what is presented and what could be reasonably understood to be accurate.

What do you think are the greatest sources of confusion or frustration about lashon hara?

It’s easy to get lost in either direction: it’s easy to think something you’re going to say is going to hurt someone and therefore to feel inhibited from saying it, while the reality might be that that information could be important for the protection of others. Or it’s easy to go the other way and get carried away with the idea that everything is relevant and everyone always has the right to know, and maybe not realize that what you’re saying is not so important to know, or even if it would be, that it could be presented in a way that’s not going to come out accurately, and so your language has to be adjusted and considered.

There’s a paradox in the laws of lashon hara that when something is necessary and significant, that’s when it has to be disclosed—but specifically in those contexts people are understandably hesitant to share something that might have such an impact.

What overall message do you hope your readers take away from the book?

I hope they emerge with an enhanced appreciation for the complexity and the common elements that are involved in the decisions of lashon hara, as well as a recognition that this is an unusual kind of mitzvah. We can’t just learn the rules and move on. It all draws from a sensitivity and awareness that it takes a lifetime to cultivate and properly define, and the more we work on ourselves and our interpersonal understanding and sensitivity, the greater chance we have of making the right calls in this area.