(From this week's Toronto Torah, hot off the presses)
Several years ago, late night comedian and band leader Paul Shaffer and the OU produced a video offering five reasons to speak lashon hara (harmful speech), including the observation that “speaking lashon hara lets the world know you care… about yourself.” The line was clever, but inaccurate; lashon hara is generally spoken in private, and the world doesn’t know anything about it. This privacy is not a mere detail; according to Rashi, our parshah suggests that privacy is a uniquely malignant characteristic of lashon hara.
In our parshah; Devarim 27:24 curses one who “strikes his friend in secret,” and Rashi states, “This refers to lashon hara.” [This comment appears to be based on Tehillim 101:5 and Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer 52.] Along the same lines, the talmudic sage Rabbah claimed that harmful speech uttered where its subject could hear it is not lashon hara. He declared, “Anything stated in front of its subject is not lashon hara.” (Arachin 15b) In practice, Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Deiot 7:5) prohibited even private harmful speech, but the intent of our parshah, Rabbah and Rabbi Yosi requires clarification: Why should privacy involve a special wrong? Might public slander be worse?
Perhaps the Torah sees private slander as a unique wrong if it involves a certain type of privacy.
Positive privacy excludes the world by default and only invites in intimates, with whom we wish to share ourselves. The Torah encourages this, terming it tzniut, as expressed in the instruction of Michah 6:8, “walk privately with your G-d.” Or as Ben Sira warned, “May many people ask after your welfare, but tell your secret to one in one thousand.” (Sanhedrin 100b) From this perspective, the world is outside of ourselves, and we invite in rare others based on a shared ideology and vision. As Rambam (Avot 1:6) cited from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, “A friend is a second self.” Privacy is an expression of alliance. [For those interested in talmudic methodology, this is an approach of klal and prat; the klal is excluded by default, and only the prat is invited in.]
Negative privacy, on the other hand, includes the world in our lives by default; our ideas, speech and bodies are open to all, like posts on a public blog. The privacy limitation is for those whom we exclude because we view them as antagonists; privacy is an expression of hostility. [Returning to talmudic methodology, this is an approach of ribui and miut; the universe is included under the ribui, and specific cases are excluded by the miut.]
Seen in this light, Rabbah’s point and the lesson of our parshah is that while all slander is wrong, the grave sin of lashon hara is worsened by hostile privacy, a weapon. Privacy which aids its circle of participants, without harming those who are excluded, is no crime. Privacy which exists solely as a means of harming others is as dark and destructive as the lashon hara it protects. [We may also use this distinction to justify Section 184.1 of the Criminal Code of Canada, which affords protection to most private communications, but that is beyond the scope of this article.]
The distinction between negative, weaponized privacy and positive, allied privacy may also be seen in the way Moshe introduced our parshah’s litany of curses. Moshe declared, “Today you have become a nation for Hashem your G-d.” (Devarim 27:9) Today we have become a nation – and so we would find it repugnant to even contemplate speaking against each other. And we are a nation for Hashem our G-d, a holy nation, a nation capable of much good through our alliances, and a nation for whom gossip is, literally, unspeakable.
In Shemot 2, Moshe Rabbeinu witnessed an Egyptian beating a Jew; he saw that no one would halt the beating, and so he killed the assailant. On the morrow, Moshe saw a Jew attacking another Jew, and he again intervened. The aggressor said to Moshe, “Are you going to kill me, as you killed the Egyptian?” After which, “Moshe became frightened and he said, ‘The word is out!’“
A midrash (Tanchuma Shemot 10) suggests that Moshe was not concerned regarding being caught; rather, Moshe accused, “The word is out, there must be lashon hara among you! If so, how will you ever earn redemption?” Hostility expressed in negative privacy which shields the spread of slander is inimical to our status as a nation of G-d. If we wish to earn the redemption which Moshe mentioned, then we must recognize, “Today we are a nation for Hashem our G-d,” private only in the most positive of ways, a true nation of Hashem.