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Speak No Evil

Last week, when the Pulitzer Prize board announced that blog posts are now eligible for the award, blogging officially became as cool as the episode of Life Goes On where Corky lip-synched (and moonwalked to) Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power.” … Read More

By / December 7, 2006

Last week, when the Pulitzer Prize board announced that blog posts are now eligible for the award, blogging officially became as cool as the episode of Life Goes On where Corky lip-synched (and moonwalked to) Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power.” It’s an excruciating but expected cultural cycle: That which engages the creative, the young and the angry, unemployed, underrepresented middle will eventually become the property of The Man, The Oppressor, or at least The Parents.

Since the dawn of the functional Internet, I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time reading (and writing) things online. Like everyone else, I started out a devoted user of AOL. It epitomized who I was, largely because my apartment was filled with coasters made out of AOL disks. The opportunity to talk on the various message boards and chat rooms was just so…cool. Remember? It was cool. LOL! ROFL! LMAO!

And then one day, the phone rang. Because no one had caller ID in 1995, I answered. It was my mother.

“How do you get onto the information superhighway?” she asked.

“It’s full,” I said. “They aren’t letting anyone else on.”

Within a month, mom was actively chatting online with a number of men who claimed to be members of MI:6 (the British equivalent of the Secret Service), one of whom was planning to fly over for New Year’s Eve. I’d like to say that this is all an elaborate joke, but it isn’t. My mother believed the men she was chatting with were secret agents. And British. And single.

I had to talk about this, so I talked about it online. I didn’t imagine that my mother would actually find my posts about her love affairs, but it was a small Internet world in 1995, and one day the phone rang again.

“Do you have any other screennames on AOL?” my mother asked.

“Uh, no,” I lied.

“Well,” she said, “that’s funny because I just ran across some posts on a message board that sounded a lot like you, and the person was talking about someone who sounded a lot like me.” She burst into tears. “It’s not right to talk about your family on the Internet. It’s lashon hara.”

Lashon Hara, commonly known as the “evil tongue,” is some bad juju that is best expressed algebraically: Rachel tells Steve something derogatory—but true—about David while not in David’s presence. Or: R + S – D = lashon hara. That Rachel is telling the truth doesn’t matter. Our rabbinic forefathers looked upon gossip of any kind as akin to, say, the AIDS epidemic—a plague capable of destroying the individual and the community alike.

For a while, the conversation with my mother stayed with me. I didn’t want to speak ill of my family (even when it was true…particularly since it was true…particularly since one of these British super spies ended up coming across the pond for two weeks and only left after my mother discovered him taking photos of her silver.)

But then I started to blog. It was 2004. All the kids were doing it. It felt good. What distinguished blogs from the old message boards and chat rooms was the faux-intimacy of public revelation. Those early LiveJournals and Diarylands took the contents of your basic frilly diary and broadcast them to a rapt audience hungry to chatter idly about anything illicit.

I—and millions and millions of people nothing like me—enjoy that illusion of invaded privacy. We’re nothing if not a voyeuristic society, and the idea of private thoughts exposed has become primary currency among the blogging billions.

Then the phone rang.

“You’ve been saying horrible things about me in your blog,” my mother said. “How could you?”

“It’s my life,” I said, “I’m allowed to talk about it.”

“But you’re not allowed to talk about my life,” she said. “What if your Nana saw these stories?”

Lashon hara is a major sin. In Leviticus, we are told: “You shall not go around as a gossipmonger amidst your people.” The Talmud says that it “kills three: the one who said it, the one who listened, and the one about whom it was said.” And the Tanakh adds that lashon hara, like murder, illicit sex, and theft, is punishable by divinely-inflicted leprosy.

Why is gossip considered so unconscionable? For one thing, gossip never takes into account mitigating circumstances. My mom could have had a great reason for entertaining 007, but my readers would never know about it. More importantly, though, Judaism believes that words can do as much harm as actions. In fact, shit-talking goes beyond the reach of other, more physical actions—like fighting, or even stealing, for instance—because there is no way to control words. Once released, they have their own lives.

The unruliness of words extends to private writing. It may seem natural for a person to write their feelings, frustrations, or anecdotal thoughts about being grounded after cutting sixth period in order to go to Starbucks in a personal journal, but Judaism recognizes that you can’t keep people out of your diary. Writing in a private journal (like a friends-only MySpace or LiveJournal, for instance, or the paper-and-pen version of old) still counts strictly as lashon hara, because you can’t entirely control who reads it. Thinking negative thoughts is one thing, expressing them is where the trouble comes in.

Plug “I hate my mother” into Google’s Blog Search, and it’s possible to spend the next week reading through nearly five thousand public rants on the subject from the last six months alone. The very act of writing this article is, in fact, lashon hara. Is there any time when lashon hara is acceptable?

According to Jewish law, yes, but only in the service of helping someone who has been victimized in some way. (I’m going to assume that my defense of “was the only boy in the neighborhood with a Dorothy Hamill haircut” is not sufficient here.) Even then, schadenfreude isn’t allowed in the aftermath.

Just when I concluded that maybe I’d change my ways, that maybe my blog would become a clearinghouse for latke recipes and homespun wisdom on prostate maintenance, an email from my mother came cascading in. The subject line? “Check out my blog!!!” I’d give you the address, but I’m afraid that would be lashon hara.

Goldberg, P.I. would like to thank Rabbi Ovadia Goldman and Rabbi Robert B. Barr.

Got a Jewish question? Send it to goldbergpi@jewcy.com.

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