Refining Speech – With and Without Torah

Simple instructions often claim “three” as their magic number. Think, “It’s as easy as A,B,C,” or “ready, aim, fire,” or “liberté, égalité, fraternité.” So it shouldn’t be surprising that someone telescoped the rules of justifiable speech into three simple questions: Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary?

It may not be surprising, until you read a bit more in a lovely article in the Wall Street Journal (January 6), and thereby discover that this formula is attributed to Socrates, or perhaps Buddhist tradition. Either way, the authors apparently came up with program for civilizing and uplifting speech civil with very little help from Sura, Pumbedisa, or Neherda’a.

Did they scoop us? Maybe not. There is no question that society would be in a better place if more people would use this tripartite litmus test before speaking (or blogging!). Under closer scrutiny, however, the program turns out to be unworkable. Seen from a Torah perspective, it is not only unworkable, but inaccurate as well!

Lest we be seen as intolerably persnickety, let us give credit where due. The article is a pleasure to read. It is good to hear that many people are aware of the damage done by gossip – both to the target and to the gossipmonger. It is a pleasant surprise to learn that some employers are so serious about banning it, that engaging in gossip can be grounds for dismissal; that some are teaching elementary school children to avoid socially damaging speech; that an old Aish HaTorah project (not identified as such in the article) called, succeeded in attracting the backing and support of an impressive number of major celebrities.

There will always be nay-sayers:

At the same time, gossip is a social interaction. “Is it kind? Is it necessary? Those are good questions,” says Dr. [Susan] Hafen [a professor of communication at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah]. “But it would be a boring world if we always had to tiptoe around, being kind. For one thing, we wouldn’t be able to tell any jokes.”

More seriously, she says, prohibiting gossip that isn’t “kind” may be a way of “avoiding unpleasantness, of fence-sitting, of not rocking the boat. If we only tell kind stories about people, then we may be avoiding holding people responsible for their actions.”

The second point is certainly valid, and from a Jewish perspective, even understated. If speech must always be kind, all kinds of evil will never be exposed, and therefore never resisted. Beyond manifestly evil behavior, much other information is seen by Jewish law as necessary to be shared, and therefore permissible even when unkind. The heter of “le-to’eles” is well-established and well-known.

In halacha, one of the three prongs of the test is inaccurate, and the other two are interdependent. The truth of the report is largely irrelevant. The laws of lashon hora apply even if the information is entirely true. (If it isn’t, further prohibitions kick in.) Kindness and necessity do a dance around each other. Any speech that is derogatory (i.e. unkind) is prohibited – unless it happens to be necessary, in which case it often isn’t! Not unexpectedly, many conditions must be met before justifying the unkind speech, and for them we need to immerse ourselves in halachic texts.

Perhaps we catch a glimpse here of another dimension of a familiar aphorism of Chazal: יש חכמה בגוים תאמן… יש תורה בגוים אל תאמן
The non-Jewish formulation shows chochmah/wisdom. It provides much to think about, and much to emulate. It can inspire, but not quite offer direction in every situation. Those who seek such guidance are looking for a legal system, not sermonics, however compelling. Torah is a legal system, going beyond general advice to a reliable yardstick in all circumstances. The non-Jewish world produces much chochmah – but not Torah. For a self-contained, systematic legal approach, we need more than human wisdom. Looking for it, it will be best to bypass Socrates, and run straight to Sefer Chofetz Chaim.

[Thanks to Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald of NJOP for providing the link.]

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8 Responses

  1. Ori says:

    A heuristic people can easily learn and apply in most circumstances can be more useful than an exact solution that takes a long time to memorize and implement.

    In this case, I’d say the heuristic should be two out of three. It’s OK to say things that are true and kind, regardless of necessity. It is sometimes necessary to say kind things even when you’re stretching the truth, as when telling a kid s/he is big and responsible. And unless we want evil to hide and flourish, we have to say things that are necessary and true even when unkind sometimes.

  2. Dr. E says:

    Perhaps more important than the more popular physical manifestations in dress, “tzniyut” is very much about how one conducts her/himself, including one’s speech. Even without violating the tenets of Hilchot Lashon Harah per se, there are certain aspects of one’s life that don’t need to be shared with all others. (This certainly applies to sharing details of someone else’s life as well.) Call it gossip or call it TMI (too much information). The tendency of some to freely share information might be linked to a certain dose of self-centeredness. It might also be due to a need to remain relevant socially. Either way, it is not only a turn-off to some, but it can have negative ramifications socially and professionally. We don’t need to know that the reason why you are late to a meetingt was due to your sister-in-law’s vort going overtime, or you missed an appointment because your baby threw up in the mini-van. Just say that “something came up” and make sure that these unforeseen circumstances occur closer to 0% of the time than to 100%.

    Unfortunately, the downsides of technology include the Internet, email, social media, cell phones, and texting is TMI (too much information). What was previously kept under wraps is now put out there–as part of the feeding of an obsession to give a minute by minute accounting for one’s life for all of one’s “friends” to see. It is no wonder that this carries over to speech.

  3. Dovid Sherman says:

    It seems to me that all such rules raise questions about their application. It is apparent that in spite of all the talk about the hazards of lashon horah, it is toeles that is constantly being ignored in the frum world. Over and over I hear of deceptions in shidduchim that come back to haunt couples. Similarly from my vantage point in youth programming I have heard too many stories of molesters who could have been stopped sooner

  4. Mr. Cohen says:

    Since 3 is a magic number in this discussion, I offer 3 quotes about the evils of unrefined speech [nibul peh]:

    QUOTE 1:

    Tanach / Bible, Isaiah, chapter 9, verse 16:

    Therefore, G_D will not rejoice over His youths and He will not have mercy on His orphans and widows, because all of them are hypocrites and evil doers and every mouth speaks obscene language…

    QUOTE 2:

    Babylonian Talmud, tractate Shabbat, page 33A:

    Obscene language causes calamities to increase and new harsh decrees against Jews and the men of Israel die young, and orphans and widows cry out and are not answered.

    QUOTE 3:

    Babylonian Talmud, tractate Shabbat, page 33A:

    Rabah bar Shilah taught in the name of Rabbi Chisdah:
    Anyone who speaks obscene language, Gehinom [Hell] is deepened for him.

  5. Bob Miller says:

    Unmoderated blogs invite unrefined speech in written form. That’s why they often cheapen and debase our discourse; this has not escaped the attention of Gedolim. Moreover, once the cat is out of the bag and the debased discourse is on line, it’s very hard to pull it back.

  6. dell says:

    I think another way to model refined speech that doesn’t include talking non-stop about others is changing what goes on in the yeshiva classroom. Over the years my sons have come home with gossip gleaned from their rebbeim- which Gvir lost all his money in a bad investment, which Askan is hosting a parlor meeting for a political candidate because he is a big contributor, etc. It is never mean or evil discussions, but just blabbing and sharing “maiselach” (almost exclusively) about wealthy people. Besides my resenting that important learning time is filled with gossip (tell a T’nach or Gadol story if the boys need a break), it always comes out as a discussion about people who have things no one else does, etc. And I won’t even get started on all the Hashgacha Pratis stories that have wonderful endings (also always about money), with the main character gaining back triple his donation, etc.

  7. Shades of Gray says:

    An important part of the article is the following:

    “When I finished my tirade, my mom said, ‘You know, this boy you find ugly and weird is some mother’s pride and joy…So the next time a boy asks you to dance, before you turn him down or make fun of him, just remember: Every boy is some mother’s son.’ ”

    While high school proms have no relevance in yeshivos, teasing and bullying is an issue which has recently received attention. If the above quote about dances could be adopted for relevant situations and followed, the problem could be lessened. The broader point is actually “d’alach sani l’chaverca lo taveid”(that which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor). In this past week’s parsha as well, Ohr Rashaz has a number of essays on putting one’s self in another’s shoes reagrding “he went out to his brethren and saw their burdens”.

  8. Mr. Cohen says:

    Continuing from message number 4 of this discussion, I offer 3 more quotes about the evils of unrefined speech [nibul peh]:

    QUOTE 4:

    Commands of Rabbi Eliezer the Great, Paragraph 9:

    Do not defile your mouth with foul language [nivul peh] even as a joke.

    NOTE: This is the Rabbi Eliezer from the Pesach Hagadah.

    QUOTE 5:

    Rabbeinu Yonah, Shaarei Teshuvah, Chapter 3, Paragraph 229:

    Whoever speaks crude language [Nibul Peh] is heavy with guilt and abominable and abhorrent, because he has abandoned shame and modesty which are famously the traits of the holy people [literally, holy seed] and he walk with brazenness which is the trait of disgusting and wicked reprobates

    MINIBIOGRAPHY: Rabbi Yonah ben Abraham of Gerona, died 1263.
    He was a cousin of Nahmanides (Ranban) and wrote a commentary on tractate Avot.

    QUOTE 6:

    Rema comment on Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim, Siman 53, Sif 25, Sif Katan 81:

    A prayer leader [Shaliach Tzibbur] who defiles his mouth with crude words or sings songs of Gentile religions, it is correct to protest that he should not do this.

    And if he refuses to listen, he should be removed.

    CHRONOLOGY: The Rema was Rabbi Moshe Isserles, who was born in year 1520 of the Common Era and died in 1572 in Cracow, Poland.

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