Friday, July 26, 2013

Jewish Moral Teaching Against Gossip #2: Rules, Rules, Rules

[Note: We are in the middle of a long blog series working through my doctoral research into the problem of gossip. We are listening to many voices along the way--proponents of gossip, those who have exacerbated or exploited the problem, those who are ambiguous or ambivalent, and now opponents of gossip both secular and religious.

Yesterday, we started a three post interaction with the Jewish moral teaching against gossip embodied most powerfully in a work called Chofetz Chaim [popularized by three modern books]. I suggested that while there is much to learn from this disciplined approach to the tongue, there are significant differences between this Jewish approach and Christian teaching. The first two differences are about rules. "First, the Jewish tradition places an inordinate emphasis on rule-keeping. Second, the Jewish tradition’s understanding of the rules becomes casuistic and borders, at times, on nonsense."]


1. Rule Keeping. The original Chofetz Chaim was a legal work in Hebrew. It is a list of rules to follow, to do and to not do. Wylen’s book ends with a summary list of fifty-three points. He suggests,

Review the list of rules every morning when you wake up. Tell yourself that you will try not to break any of these rules today. . . . After a few weeks or months of effort you will no longer need this . . . review. The rules for proper speech will be ingrained in your character. . . . Soon you will know the joy that comes from having only good things to say about others.”1

Palatnik says similarly, “At the end of this book, you will find an appendix reviewing these rules. . . . Five minutes a day spent learning the laws of speech can make a dramatic difference in reducing the amount of gossip spoken.”2

Meditation on truth does have a maturing effect upon the believer (Ps 119). These books impress me, however, as offering a collection of iron-clad laws to be rigidly applied and promising righteousness when followed. Wylen astonishingly asserts that

by thoroughly learning the laws set forth in the Hofetz Haim and applying them diligently, one could become perfect in speech, knowing the right words for any situation, no matter how complex or ambiguous. Rabbi Kagan himself was a renowned leader of Lithuanian Jewry, deeply involved in communal affairs in times of great stress and strife. Despite this, he was never heard to speak even one single improper word in his whole life.3

2. Casuistic Rules. Any list of rules can take on a life of its own, especially as more rules are added to explain the original rules or to untangle contradictions between them. This was the case with the Pharisees in the New Testament and appears to be the case with these modern Jews as they teach on gossip.

For example, the definition Wylen offers for gossip is “any statement about someone that lowers him or her in the esteem of the listener.”4 The intention of the statement is important, but it is the possible effect that determines whether or not the speaker ought to utter the statement. “Whether the statement pertains to something essential or something incidental, it is gossip so long as it lowers the subject in the esteem of those who hear it.”5

Wylen offers these examples, “Jeremy’s car is a really old clunker!” “Maria’s clothes are all last year’s fashions.” “Al and Roberta’s house is the least valuable one on their block.”6 Wylen explains, “Many of us feel that our property is an extension of ourselves or a statement about who we are. To disparage someone’s possessions, then, is in a sense, to disparage the owner of the possessions.”7

Perhaps. These authors go on to state that people should be careful not to praise other people because the conversation could easily turn in an evil direction. Telushkin teaches that gossip can include “information and comments about others that are nondefamatory and true.”8 He gives this example as bad, “I was at a party at so-and-so’s house last night. It’s absolutely gorgeous what they’ve done with their kitchen” and then asks, “What possible reason could there be for discouraging people from exchanging such innocuous, even complimentary, information?”9

Apparently, there are several. First, “The listener might not find the information so innocuous. While one person is describing how wonderful the party was, the other might well wonder, ‘Why wasn’t I invited?’”10 Second, “The more important reason for discouraging ‘innocuous’ gossip is that it rarely remains so.”11 Thirdly, Telushkin urges caution about “inadvertent harm that your words may cause. For example, although praising a friend might seem like a laudable act, doing so in the presence of someone who dislikes her will probably do your friend’s reputation more harm than good.”12

Astonishingly, Telushkin charges God with this kind of wrongdoing! God’s praise of Job became the occasion for Satan’s attack on Job (Job 1:8). Telushkin avers, “Although the Book of Job has a happy ending, would anyone dispute that Job’s life would have proceeded far more smoothly had God not chosen to praise him before Satan?”13

Similarly tangled are the rules covering lying. Apparently, it is good to lie so that you do not gossip. Wylen explains that “One should lie rather than tell the truth when . . . [y]our purpose in telling a lie is to create peace between people in a situation where revealing the truth would cause ill feeling.”14 He says, “Some people wrongly believe that ‘Thou shalt not lie!’ is one of the Ten Commandments. Not so! The third commandment obligates us to fulfill vows made in God’s name. The ninth commandment prohibits perjury when giving testimony under oath in a court of law. Nowhere in Scripture is there a prohibition of lying.”15

This seems fantastical to me, given the amount of passages that condemn lying speech (e.g., Prov 6:17, 12:19, 21:6, 26:28). But Wylen argues that this kind of peace-keeping falsehood is good in several situations. For example, when a person is asked to give their opinion of a purchase: “If your friend has already purchased the article or service in question and merely wants you to confirm the wisdom or good taste of the purchase, it is better not to say what you think. Praise the new acquisition regardless of your true opinion.”16

Surprisingly, Wylen believes that God lies in similar situations. “Scripture depicts God as telling a lie rather than hurt Abraham’s feelings (Genesis 18:13).”17 It is shocking to me that people who are so concerned with following God’s law would be so quick to think that God acts in reckless blameworthy ways himself.

1Stephen M. Wylen, Gossip: The Power of the Word (Hoboken: KTAV Publishing House, 1993), 156-157.
2Lori Palatnik with Bob Burg, Gossip: Ten Pathways to Eliminate It from Your Life and Transform Your Soul (Deerfield Beach: Simcha Press, 2002), 116.
3Stephen M. Wylen, Gossip: The Power of the Word (Hoboken: KTAV Publishing House, 1993), 15-16.
4Ibid., 21.
5Stephen M. Wylen, Gossip: The Power of the Word (Hoboken: KTAV Publishing House, 1993), 21.
6Ibid., 23.
7Ibid., 23-24.
8Joseph Telushkin, Words that Hurt, Words that Heal: How to Choose Words Wisely and Well (New York: Quill, 1996), 17.
9Ibid., 18.
10Joseph Telushkin, Words that Hurt, Words that Heal: How to Choose Words Wisely and Well (New York: Quill, 1996), 18.
12Ibid., 19.
13Ibid. It must be noted that Telushkin does not actually say that God sinned, but that seems to be the unavoidable implication of his words. A much better approach to the subject of praising others can be found in Sam Crabtree, Practicing Affirmation: God-Centered Praise of Those Who Are Not God (Wheaton: Crossway, 2011).
14Stephen M. Wylen, Gossip: The Power of the Word (Hoboken: KTAV Publishing House, 1993), 80-81.
15Ibid., 80.
16Ibid., 81. Wylen also commends lying when you cannot be certain of your own objectivity and when you know that your advice will not be heeded. Telushkin offers an entire chapter on these rules governing lying, “Is Lying Always Wrong” in Joseph Telushkin, Words that Hurt, Words that Heal: How to Choose Words Wisely and Well (New York: Quill, 1996), 133-146. It must be said that these teachers are against lying in the main but are trying to lay out rules that govern exceptions.
17Stephen M. Wylen, Gossip: The Power of the Word (Hoboken: KTAV Publishing House, 1993), 80.