July 13, 2024
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Lashon Hara in the Internet Age

The classic work “Chafetz Chaim” on the laws of lashon hara, damaging language, was written well over a century ago. In the intervening years, the world has changed dramatically. Cellphones, e-mail and social media were not even in the realm of science fiction; they were beyond the imagination. Today they are part of the fabric of our life. In this age of hyper-communication, how do the laws of lashon hara apply? Answering this question requires profound knowledge and wisdom.

Rabbi Daniel Z. Feldman, rosh yeshiva at Yeshiva University’s RIETS and rabbi of Teaneck’s Ohr Saadya, uses his vast store of talents to apply these laws to the contemporary environment in his new book “False Facts and True Rumors: Lashon Hara in Contemporary Culture.” Enhanced communication demands enhanced responsibility. The greater freedom of expression that individuals enjoy today generate a greater obligation for careful speech. Rabbi Feldman, my long-time friend and classmate, brings together three distinct literatures to create a compelling case that people must rein in their speech today more than ever.

Rabbi Feldman presents a conceptual view of lashon hara. He wants to explain not just what is allowed and what is forbidden, but why. What is the point, the underlying rationale, of all these rules? Is lashon hara forbidden because it damages the victim or because it represents a malicious abuse of information? Before the publication of Chafetz Chaim, the laws of Lashon Hara were generally discussed in ethical literature, Mussar works. Following this example, Rabbi Feldman masterfully mines the Mussar literature for psychological and sociological explanations of the lashon hara rules.

Halachic literature, the legal codes and responsa, often intimidate students when laws are not easily identifiable. There is no section of Shulchan Aruch called “The Laws of Lashon Hara.” Only an industrious scholar can find the stray rulings in unrelated sections, the decisions of later scholars in volumes of responsa and the articles in rabbinic journals across the decades. Rabbi Feldman’s encyclopedic sweep of halachic literature, with his masterful footnotes, sheds an authoritative light on these complex but crucial rules.

Yet with all the changes in society, how do we properly apply these rulings from across the centuries? This is the biggest surprise in the book. Rabbi Feldman wields an impressive command of the sociological literature on communication, particularly but not exclusively in the Internet era. Studies show a bias in how people interpret information, what is known as the “fundamental attribution error.” If I hear about someone else’s negative action, I assume it is representative of his character. However, when I commit the same act, I interpret it as out of character, not reflective of my nature. Facts are never just facts; they require interpretation. The laws of lashon hara guard against the bias of interpretation.

Unlike any other lashon hara book, Rabbi Feldman’s impressive work surveys the sociological literature for information about the unexpected biases and impacts fostered by lashon hara. Section headings include: the fallibility of memory, the illusion of confidence, confidence biases and disproportionate influence, confirmation bias, the online disinhibition effect and more. Combining Jewish law and an understanding of contemporary social interaction, this is the most important book on Jewish speech available today.

However, despite the severity of sinful lashon hara, a modern society cannot function without free-flowing information. How can we vote without knowing about the candidate? How can we conduct business without knowing who are crooks? In a chapter titled “Contemporary Culture: Journalism, the Internet and Politics,” Rabbi Feldman explores the implications of his opening remarks that, on the one hand, “to become informed and to inform others regarding these areas, especially in a democratic society, seems to be well within the bounds of purposeful and necessary speech.” But on the other hand, “this justification does not detract from the vigilance and sensitivity required by the precepts involving lashon hara.” The greater power of communication in the Internet age requires even greater care with the laws of lashon hara.

Journalists and bloggers perform an important service to society. However, if they fail to be fair and accurate, they abuse their power. Additionally, consumers of media have to be careful readers, maintaining a balance between a healthy skepticism about the reports and caution about potential danger. Accuracy is important in journalism, yet often elusive in contemporary media. The idea that the Internet corrects errors through global fact-checking masks the flaws in this process. If truth arrives at all on the Internet, it usually comes late and amid competing claims. True to form, Rabbi Feldman surveys contemporary sociological literature about Internet behavior, evaluating the halachic implications.

Everyone slips, particularly regarding lashon hara. However, when you spread disparaging information, how do you correct your mistake? Some suggest asking forgiveness from the victim of your verbal assault, whether specifically or generally. Rabbi Feldman quotes an intriguing suggestion from Rav Ahron Soloveichik, who recommends spreading positive information about your victim to counteract the effects of your lashon hara. It is better to undo the offense than to merely ask for forgiveness.

This remarkable book teaches not only the laws of lashon hara but the nature of communication today. More words, more texts, pings and pokes, do not necessarily mean better communication. By better understanding how we interact—how information affects us and others—we can enhance our own clarity of expression and comprehension. Rabbi Feldman teaches us not only how to communicate more responsibly but also more effectively.

The Teaneck community remembers the author’s father, Rabbi David M. Feldman, who passed away one year ago and to whom the book is dedicated. This dedication is most felicitous because the senior Rabbi Feldman was so careful in his speech, so generous in his praise, so kind in his interpretations and so meticulous in his research. This masterful book serves as a notable monument to a great scholar.

The community is invited to join Rabbi Feldman in marking his father’s yartzeit on November 17. See details in the ad on page 19.

By Rabbi Gil Student

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