Recently discovered video footage includes clip of the Chofetz Chaim (third from left), 1923
Recently discovered video footage includes clip of the Chofetz Chaim (third from left), 1923

People Of The Book: Classic Works Of The Jewish Tradition

By Dr. Henry Abramson

Like historical sites explored by archaeologists, Jewish texts regularly yield amazing discoveries to the scholar who submits to the unyielding discipline of concentrated study. Modern discoveries in Judaism can be life-altering, producing shockwaves that generate positive change on a tectonic level throughout the Jewish world. One such discovery was recorded in the phenomenal 1873 work written by a diminutive and theretofore unknown Lithuanian rabbi named Yisrael Meir Kagan. He would go on to compose other works of tremendous import, including the highly influential six-volume Mishnah Berurah, but he would forever be known by the title of his first and most original work: the ChofetzChaim.

ChofetzChaim (the book, not the rabbi) begins with an awesome premise: the vast majority of what passes for casual conversation is in fact forbidden by Torah law. The term lashonha’ra (evil speech) was hardly unknown to Jews of the 19th century. It occurs frequently in the Talmud and works of the ethical tradition known as mussar, yet it remained an obscure, fine point in Jewish observance that was frequently ignored by the common Jew. The ChofetzChaim argues that the lack of awareness regarding lashonha’ra stemmed from two principal errors: (1) Most common people simply do not know that the Torah forbids discussing negative information about someone even if the facts are verified. This is, however, precisely the definition of lashonha’ra; discussing false negative information falls into the much more serious category of forbidden speech called motzishemra; and (2) many learned Jews are aware of the prohibition against gossip, yet they overestimate the scope of the circumstances under which lashonha’ra is permitted.

The ChofetzChaim therefore directed his first work at scholars, measuring out his Hebrew prose in a series of guarded, conservative arguments that culminated in an inescapable conclusion: the Jewish world, beginning with its leadership, would have to revolutionize speech in order to remain in compliance with the dictates of the Torah. This audacious assertion, incredibly rare for the modern period, found fertile soil among spiritual seekers throughout Jewish Eastern Europe and beyond, creating a worldwide revolution in human communication, the impact of which continues even now.

The ChofetzChaim severely circumscribed the parameters of acceptable discourse, requiring Jews to focus on positive aspects of the human experience. He wrote further that the Torah absolutely acknowledges the comparatively rare situations when lashonha’ra is permitted or even required. The most fascinating section of the book discusses the seven preconditions for lashonha’ra, and by examining those preconditions one may get a sense of the larger phenomenon, as exceptions that prove the rule. The ChofetzChaim places them in a seven-letter Hebrew acronym as a mnemonic device, which may be fortuitously rendered with the English word SILENCE.

1. Search for alternatives to lashonha’ra: is it really necessary to tell this story?

2. Intend a positive, practical result: will someone benefit, other than simply be entertained, by hearing this story?

3. Look for exonerating factors: perhaps there are elements of this story that would limit the blameworthiness of the subject.

4. Exaggeration is forbidden: if you must tell the story, add nothing.

5. No hearsay is permitted: if you must tell the story, relate only what you can personally confirm.

6. Consequences must be proportionate: sometimes a trivial fact can produce a negative result that is far greater than the original wrong, and silence would have produced better outcomes overall.

7. Engage the subject first: before you speak negatively about another person, talk to them first and allow the dignity of responding and explaining their behavior.

Adherence to these seven preconditions significantly reduces the incidence of negative speech, while permitting it in situations that will prevent further damage or otherwise produce a tangible benefit.

The ChofetzChaim returned to the topic of lashonha’ra many times over a prodigious literary career that spanned 60 years, usually with more popular treatments like Sefer Shemirat Ha-Lashon (1876). His highly legalistic approach in Sefer Chofetz Chaim, however, described with mathematical precision the boundaries of kosher communication, creating a brightly burning star in the constellation of Torah literature.

Dr. Henry Abramson is a specialist in Jewish History and Thought. He serves as dean at the Avenue J Campus of Touro’s Lander Colleges and may be reached at abramson@touro.edu.

 

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