We discussed last week how the Torah prohibits speaking badly about our friend even if we are saying the truth. But we still need to define what ‘speaking badly’ means. There are some descriptions of people that are considered objectively derogatory, such as, ‘arrogant’, ‘selfish’ and ‘evil’. One cannot use such terms in describing someone else. One may argue that he would even say such things about a person right in front of him and therefore it should be allowed. This is not the case; indeed it is even more disdainful to actually be willing to say such harmful things to a person’s face.
Another reason that one may think justifies speaking badly about someone is that that person says the same thing about himself. For example, one may think, “John often says how lazy is so why can’t I say it?!’ However, any trait that is objectively negative remains negative even if the person happily admits that he has that trait. One last justification to speak lashon hara is, “I am only joking’ – that too does not justify criticizing others.
There is a second category of descriptions which are not objectively negative, rather they can be interpreted in either a negative or neutral way. For example, ‘he is always cooking food in his house” could be taken to simply mean that he cooks a lot or it could imply that he is greedy. This kind of speech may be allowed if the following conditions are fulfilled:
1.The speaker must not intend his statement as a criticism:
2.He must be sure that the listener will not interpret it in a negative way.
If there is any doubt as to how the listener will interpret it then it should not be said.
At this point it is important to acknowledge that all these laws may seem overwhelming but we should not be discouraged. A major tenet of Judaism is that we should not jump too quickly in his spiritual growth. Rather we should take small, meaningful steps. So too with regard to lashon hara – it is not possible to drastically change our speech in one moment. A suggested first step is simply to try to be more aware of our speech and at least notice when we are speaking negatively. Once we can do this then we can begin to slowly change the way we speak.
Text Copyright © 2008 by Rabbi Yehonasan Gefen and Torah.org