Every now and again the media report a court case involving the claim of libel – that one person spoke falsely about another. Society understands that it is unacceptable to say negative things about people if they are not true. It seems, however, that society accepts the right to speak negatively about others as long as we speak the truth. The Torah takes a different approach: Negative speech about others (known as lashon hara in hebrew) is forbidden by the Torah even if one is telling the truth. Why is this the case – what is wrong with speaking honestly about others just because it involves criticism?
There are two main reasons why lashon hara is forbidden? Firstly it often causes damage of some kind . And even if there is no tangible damage done, we tend to change our opinion of people based on what we hear about them. Consequently if we hear, for example, that John is an arrogant person, we are now more likely to notice arrogance in his character.
But what about a situation where lashon hara was spoken and absolutely no damage was done? Why should this form of lashon hara be forbidden? This brings us to the second problem with lashon hara even when it is true; Rabbeinu Yonah, one of the great medieval Rabbis, tells a brief story about this issue: An elderly sage was walking along a path with his student and they passed the rotting corpse of a dog. The student exclaimed, “this corpse is so disgusting!” His Rabbi answered, “but what lovely white teeth it has!” The Rabbi was teaching his student that we should always strive to focus on the good, even with regard to the corpse of a dog.
When a person speaks badly about someone else he is focusing on the negative and ignoring the positive in that that person. Rabbeinu Yonah explains that seeing the bad in others in and of itself is an undesirable character trait – speaking badly about others reflects an inner tendency to see the negative. The Torah forbids lashon hara because it wants us to be people who see the good in others.
Text Copyright © 2008 by Rabbi Yehonasan Gefen and Torah.org