When you ask someone to stop gossiping it can get awkward. On one hand, you don’t like what the other person is doing. On the other hand, you don’t want to act as if you are better than your friend. So, you can say something, you can try and ignore what is being said, or you can run away screaming “My neshama! My neshama!” Assuming you want to choose the first option, I have some advice for you: don’t talk about “lashon hara.” I’ll explain.
Ironically, halakha can present a major impediment to properly conveying Jewish values. This results from the ritualistic nature of our halakhik practice. Everyday halakha encompasses a large part of our lives and therefore doesn’t come with the excitement of one-time events. Additionally, halakhik decisions and discussions involve mostly “legal” matters. Many authorities have expressed caution at learning the reasons behind mitzvot. The argument is that learning the reasons may cause a person to make decisions based on the reasons alone. But if our primary sense of responsibility comes from saying na’aseh v’nishma, “commandedness” is where our adherence should begin and end.
Despite the benefits of observance for observance’s sake, many pitfalls accompany this approach. If the values behind a certain mitzvah or set of halakhot are ignored, it becomes impossible to understand why you are doing the mitzvah. Many people are looking to see how mitzvot fit their picture of what Judaism is about, and that gets lost in the “because Hashem said so” approach. This is not to suggest a subjective version of shmirat mitzvot, but rather that human beings have a natural desire for meaning. Without meaning and understanding observance can become difficult.
To make this tension practical, let’s talk about how we talk. When we express an important concept (whether it be Jewish or not) to our friends, students, congregants, or children, do we make sure emphasize the value of speaking properly? It’s not that hard, actually. Instead of saying “Enough with the chutzpah!” you can say “Speak respectfully to mommy and daddy, they do a lot for you, and deserve more respect.” This way you are address the present behavior and are helping your children understand. Sure, they might not get it right away, but over time, you will be doing them (and yourselves) a big favor.
In terms of chinuch, I have found this to be very important, but also for an additional and very powerful reason. When we use terms like Avodat Hashem, Shomer Negiah, and Kavod HaTorah without emphasizing what they truly mean, they completely lose their nuance. This results in our children and students being unaware of the different degrees and types of mitzvah. Just as serving God has numerous models, being Shomer Negiah has many degrees to which it can be kept, and the Torah can be given honor in many ways. This can easily get lost in the lack of translation.
Furthermore, turning important and nuanced concepts into catchphrases often results in an all-or-nothing effect. If one ignores different degrees and modes or observance, those who can’t “do it all” will do nothing, which is, by this strictly enforced limited and strict definition, their only other option. Additionally, when multiple concepts are lumped together in the box of Jewish cliches, kids can say “well, I just don’t do those things.” Then questions like “Are you Shomer Negiah?” don’t seem absurd. You either are, or you are not, and there is no in between. Important answers like “I am trying” or “in some way, but I am trying to improve” are now impossible—you force the person into a box of being either or, with no middle ground.
So, instead of telling others that “Hashem loves you,” try saying “God is aware of all that happens, and He wouldn’t let things go if they went against a greater plan, of which you are an important part.” Yes, this doesn’t sound as charming, but it’s probably closer to the truth. And when your subject has a really bad day or week or year, they won’t think “How can someone who loves me do this to me?” Instead, they will have something realistic to hang on to.
(Obviously, every situation is different, and different people need different things. This is not the only authentic way of thinking or educating. For some people, ideas work better, and for some faith works better. Everyone must find their own balance.)
Now, back to our original scenario. If you say “Don’t say that, it’s Lashon Hara,” what will the reaction be? “Sorry, you’re right, I shouldn’t be doing that?” Maybe. But you also run the risk of your friend thinking “Well, I spoke Lashon Hara ten minutes ago, I’m not on the anti-Lashon Hara team.” Or you might get the classic “What, you’re more religious than me?” response.
However, if your standard reaction is “Sorry, I’m uncomfortable talking about other people,” you avoid these problems. You might encourage other people to think about why Lashon Hara is a problem. You also might get them to stop gossiping. It’s important to teach each other that Judaism is not all or nothing, and that there is always room for growth. Let’s not turn Torah and mitzvot into a bunch of cliches. It’s so much more than that.
Yair Daar teaches Gemara and Tanach, and serves as a curriculum coordinator at SAR High School in Riverdale, New York. He is currently a doctoral candidate at Yeshiva University’s Azrieli Graduate School. Yair lives in Bergenfield with his wife and three daughters. He can be reached at ydaar11_gmail.com.
By Yair Daar