c. 2000 Religion News Service
CLEVELAND _ Deborah and Abby Ross, a mother and daughter from Orange, Ohio, stood near the exit of a Cedar Point roller coaster, watching the human parade.
“People at Cedar Point often wear shorts who shouldn’t wear shorts,” Deborah Ross said. “We decided to try to find something good about everyone who walked by. Sometimes it was only, `I like her purse,’ or `I like her hair color,’ but we did it and we had fun. And we weren’t left with that sour taste you get when you put other people down.”
The Ross women didn’t create this summer diversion in a vacuum. They’ve been studying their Bible about malevolent gossip. On the back of Debbie Ross’ Infinity SUV is a bumper sticker that reads, “Put the brakes on Loshon Hora.” The phrase is Hebrew for “negative speech” or “negative tongue.”
From an epicenter in Cleveland, a movement against malicious talk is poised to go national. It has spread to the point that strangers in parking lots and car washes stop Ross to ask her where she got her bumper sticker. Ross, a family psychologist, now keeps a stash in her glove compartment to pass out.
Jewish groups in Miami, St. Louis and Philadelphia are beginning public campaigns in December to curb gossip, based on the Cleveland model. Phone calls are coming into the barely furnished basement office of its creator, Rabbi Chaim Feld, from as far away as England, China and Brazil.
“Gossip is probably the No. 1 pastime in America,” Feld said. “People have been taught not to, but assume that everyone does it. Thinking about the damage done by gossip is like learning a new word. Once you learn it, you see it everywhere.”
Feld, the son of New Jersey hardware store owners, left his secular upbringing for Israel and the Orthodox rabbinate. During his last four years in Cleveland, he has focused a long interest in Judaic teachings against cruel speech into a “Pay-It-Forward” kind of initiative.
“I want to create a social revolution, a shift in this society so that gossip is not acceptable,” Feld said. “It happened with smoking; now smokers must huddle like outcasts outside their buildings. Why can’t it happen with gossip?”
His passion was galvanized by the bitter fight between Orthodox and other Jews over a proposal to build an Orthodox campus in Beachwood, a Cleveland suburb. “For 20 years I was nonobservant, and for 20 more, since graduation (from Emory University), I have been very observant, so I am comfortable in both worlds,” Feld said. “The infighting about the Beachwood campus, hearing Jews speak badly about other Jews, really pained me.”
Loshon hora has no exact translation into English, partly because it concerns much more than simple slander. Feld and other rabbis stress that the Bible teaches that words that hurt someone physically, financially or emotionally are forbidden. That covers statements that are true.
“The Talmud equates loshon hora with murder,” Feld said. “If you’ve never met Michael, and someone tells you he is a jerk, then Michael has been murdered for you, before you even meet him.”
In his book “Operation Shylock,” novelist Philip Roth describes loshon hora as “Defamatory statements. Insulting witticisms. Disparaging anecdotes. Idle mockery.” And listening to it, according to Jewish teaching, is even more sinful than speaking it.
Unlike a thief, who can make amends by returning or replacing property, the gossip cannot return a good name. “This is an evil of such profound magnitude and consequence that Jewish law questions whether anyone who is guilty of this offense can ever fully repent,” writes Rabbi Joseph Telushkin in his influential book “Words That Hurt; Words That Heal.” Telushkin gave his blessing to use his book title for the Cleveland initiative.
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When Feld teaches about loshon hora, he
likes to remind people of Oliver Sipple.
In 1975, Sipple saved Gerald Ford’s life by grabbing the arm of a woman firing a gun at the president. Sipple asked journalists in San Francisco not to write about him, to no avail. Within days, the Los Angeles Times reported that Sipple was a gay activist, stunning the man’s family in Detroit. After reporters confronted Sipple’s mother, she stopped speaking to him. Four years later, Sipple’s father prevented him from attending her funeral. Depressed and drinking heavily, Sipple died alone in his apartment a few years later. He was 47.
It is easy to cringe at such thanks inflicted on a national hero, Feld said. It is a bit harder to reject the wreckage closer to home.
“In families, loshon hora causes a lot of misery,” said Ross about the people she counsels in her Mayfield Heights office. “When two people have a falling out, they cause a lot of ill will by lining up people in their family on their side against the other, instead of talking it out directly.”
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Mimi Baron Jankovitz, 43, is in charge of launching the Miami campaign against loshon hora. She and her counterparts in other cities first heard Feld speak about the Cleveland initiative during a meeting last year of Aish HaTorah, an international Jewish educational group.
“It’s something we have to work on,” Jankovitz said. “Look at the dedicated Muslims, praying on their knees three times a day. With spiritual pursuits or ethical pursuits, you can do it incrementally. You start with just 12 to 12:30, lunchtime, and promise yourself, `For just this half-hour, I won’t say anything bad and if I hear it, I’ll change the subject.’ It’s just like the smoker deciding to go the next hour without a cigarette. It can be done.”
Gossip is also toxic for the gossiper.
“Of all the things I’ve discovered learning about Judaism, this is the most amazing: Once you stop saying loshon hora, you stop thinking it,” Debbie Ross said. “If you can’t say it, why bother?”
Feld stresses there are important times when an ethical person must speak ill of someone. The classic examples are to save a friend from a dishonest business partner and to save a friend from a hazardous romance, when one knows of a serious character flaw.
For those who think taking pleasure in others’ misfortune _ “Schadenfreude” _ is hard-wired into human nature, Telushkin writes that nevertheless, keeping the principles of ethical speech in mind means you will gossip less.
“In Jewish mysticism, we believe the spiritual rewards a person receives from refraining from gossip will be great,” Feld said. “If just one person stops, it is a tremendous thing.”
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