Monday, July 29, 2013

Jewish Moral Teaching Against Gossip #3: Where Forgiveness Comes From

[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.

Last Thursday, 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 were about rules and we talked about them on Friday. Today, we interact briefly with their teaching on atonement and grace.]


3. No Atonement. More casuistic convolutions could be noted,1 but the saddest feature of the Jewish traditional teaching on gossip is the absence of atonement before God. The Jewish authors all have good discussions of confession and repentance for those who have fallen into sinful gossip, but they do not know how one gets right with God.

Wylen attributes the power of forgiveness to confession itself. “As confession has the power to remove all sin from us and make us pure before God, so also does confession to a fellow human being remove all anger, hatred, and desire for retribution, making us beloved of men and women.”2 But he also tells this cautionary tale:3

A person came to his rabbi and said to him, “Rabbi, I have gossiped against all the people in town. Now I regret what I have done. Please assign me a penance.” The rabbi plucked a dandelion and blew on it, so that the white seeds flew off into the air. “Your penance is to gather all the dandelion seeds and bring them back to me,” said the rabbi. “How can I do that?” cried the man, “the seeds have scattered to the four winds!” “Well,” said the rabbi, “so has your gossip. Nevertheless, confess before God, be ashamed, and resolve never to gossip again, and you will be forgiven.”4
Palatnik adds rehabilitation to repentance to equal expiation.

Once you have completed these steps [of repentance], God accepts your return, but it’s still on the books, so to speak. Yes, it is noted that it was taken care of, but it’s still there. How do you completely edit it out? By going to the next step, called teshuvah gamurah, or “complete return” (another term provided us by Maimonides). This occurs after you have gone through the steps, time has passed, and God, sometimes with a very good sense of humor, puts you in the same position as when you originally made the mistake, and you do not repeat the mistake. When this occurs, not only are you forgiven, but it’s as if you never made the original mistake. It is edited out of the story of your life, as if it had never happened.5

How thankful these authors make me for the atoning sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ! Forgiveness comes, not from finding all of the dandelion seeds or from eventually taming our speech, but from the precious blood of Jesus (Rom 3:21-24, 1 John 2:1-2).

1For example, in knowing whether or not you may share a secret, Wylen states, “According to Jewish wisdom, a communication addressed to three or more people is not considered secret. If you are in the company of four or more people, and one of the group reveals a personal matter, you are free to repeat it to others. . . . This permission is not valid, of course, if the speaker announces that ‘this is a secret.’” Stephen M. Wylen, Gossip: The Power of the Word (Hoboken: KTAV Publishing House, 1993), 116.
2Stephen M. Wylen, Gossip: The Power of the Word (Hoboken: KTAV Publishing House, 1993), 125.
3I have encountered various forms of this story from numerous sources. The “wise person” has been a rabbi, a pastor, and a sagacious woman. The dandelion seeds are more regularly depicted as feathers from a pillowcase.
4Ibid., 134.
5Lori Palatnik with Bob Burg, Gossip: Ten Pathways to Eliminate It from Your Life and Transform Your Soul (Deerfield Beach: Simcha Press, 2002), 116.