February 8, 2007
Courage Under Fire
Parshat Yitro (Exodus 18:1-20:23)
It is particularly painful to think that slander and other such defamation might arise, however infrequently, amid a people whose rituals call for covering the challah to spare its feelings when the wine is blessed first. Likewise, the Kohen is commanded not to ascend the altar on steps -- rather, he must walk gingerly up a ramp -- because his garment might expose some of his private parts, thus embarrassing the stones.
Notwithstanding these sensitivities, slander exists in the world, and our rabbis endeavored to confront its challenges long before defamation and libel cases like New York Times Co. v. Sullivan and its progeny wound its way through America's secular courts.
The laws of lashon hara, or evil speech, are numerous. For example, within certain rubrics it is not necessarily lashon hara during an Israeli election to remind people of how Israel fared the last time a particular candidate unsuccessfully led the Jewish state. It is not lashon hara to denigrate Neturei Karta, the anti-Zionist Charedim who attended Fatah events and Holocaust denial conferences. It is not lashon hara to refer to former President Jimmy "Karta," Holocaust denier David Irving or Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad with the utmost contempt.
When someone inquires whether someone is suitable as a pending wedding match or as a business partner, halacha permits and requires candor.
However, in a different context, a roll of the eyes, a smirk or a snicker can be a grave sin. When the intention is to reduce a person by conveying a negative meaning that has no independent halachic justification, the conveyor of the lashon hara can forfeit rewards in the world to come for all eternity.
Perhaps the challenge that is most difficult is how to respond when, unexpectedly -- sometimes amid friends -- we find ourselves caught in a lashon hara environment.
Lashon hara can sneak into a conversation at the Shabbat table, introduced cleverly and surreptitiously by someone whose agenda manipulates the discussion in that direction.
Suddenly, you're caught off guard. What do you do? Make a scene? Ruin dessert? Emerge déclassé? To remain silent is tantamount to tacit agreement, which emboldens a character assassin to believe he or she is making inroads and winning allies.
"It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to your enemies," says professor Albus Dumbledore in J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," "but a great deal more to stand up to your friends." And that indeed is the only prescriptive: to show courage, even at the cost of friendship. To speak up -- because silence is not an option. To risk losing a friend -- because losing a portion of paradise is not an option. To realize that someone willing to stain your soul at his or her Shabbat table may not be the best friend in your Rolodex.
In a memorable scene in the Oscar-winning 1947 film, "Gentleman's Agreement," Dorothy McGuire's Kathy Lacey recounts to John Garfield's Dave Goldman her fury after encountering an anti-Semite at a dinner party.
He asks, "What did you do?"
She responds that she sat there silently, allowing the slurs to continue flowing unimpeded. She did not have the courage to speak out.
Lashon hara is the ultimate anti-Semitism, a violation of the essence of Torah values that, if our guard is lowered, could emanate against Jews even from within the Jewish community, derogating one or more Jewish souls, assassinating an innocent Jew's character, causing pain and suffering to its victims and targets, to family and friends. It threatens to tarnish and stain bystanders drawn within its ambit, often innocent bystanders -- or bysitters -- caught unexpectedly in the oral terrorist's crossfire.
The only way to respond when unexpectedly finding oneself caught in a lashon hara environment is to speak out with bravery. To say, "My spouse and I did not come here to listen to this. Nor do we want our children exposed to this poisonous environment. We reject what is being said. We are here to talk about ideas. If need be, perhaps we can abide discussions about things. But if the conversation turns again to people, we will leave this environment and not return."
That is courage under fire, Jewish style.
Rabbi Dov Fischer is rav of Beth Jacob Congregation of Irvine and is adjunct professor of law at Loyola Law School of Los Angeles.