Speaking Ill of One’s People

Speaking Ill of One’s People
Rabbi Evan Hoffman – Congregation Anshe Sholom
Parshat Acharei-Kedoshim – פרשת אחרי-קדושים
April 28, 2018 – יג אייר תשעח
This essay is dedicated in memory of Michael Strauss Z”L.
Speaking Ill of One’s People
The Scriptural admonishment לא תלך רכיל בעמך (Leviticus 19:16) has been variously translated: (a) “Thou shalt not go up and down as a talebearer among thy people” (KJV); (b)“You shall not go about slandering your kin” (Robert Alter); (c) “You shall not be a gossipmonger among your people” (Artscroll); (d)“Do not deal basely with your countrymen” (JPS); (e) “Do not act as a merchant toward your own kinsmen” (Baruch Levine); and others.
A “rokhel” is a merchant or trader (I Kings 10:15, Ezekiel 17:4, Nehemiah 3:31). The commentators identify the “rokhel” as a spice merchant who wonders hither and yon selling women’s cosmetics. Ibn Ezra explained that just as a peddler buys his wares from one person and sells them to another, so too does the “rakhil,” or talebearer, reveal to one person the gossip he heard from another.
Rashi commented that those who wish to spread malicious reports about others will go to the homes of their intended victims to eavesdrop and spy in the hope of uncovering something unseemly to report in the marketplace. The movement from place to place explains why only in connection with “rekhilut,” as opposed to other forms of evil speech, does Scripture consistently use the verb “to go.” Rashi connects the root ר-כ-ל with the similarly spelled and pronounced root ר-ג-ל meaning espionage. The talebearer uses his legs (רגל) in pursuit of surreptitiously gained information with which to ruin the reputation of others.
Onkelos rendered Leviticus 19:16 this way: לא תיכול קרצין בעמך “Do not eat the food of winking among your people.” During the Second Temple and Rabbinic periods, “eating the food of winking” was a euphemism for slander. The expression is used to describe how the Chaldeans maliciously denounced the Jews to Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 3:8). Rav Shila administered corporal punishment to a Jew who copulated with a heathen woman. The illicit fornicator then “ate the food of winking” in the palace, meaning he denounced Rav Shila to the authorities for imposing penalties without royal permission (Berakhot 58a).
Rashi postulated that the expression is derived from the meal eaten in the home of the listener to gossip, signifying that he has accepted the veracity of what he has just heard. Ramban and Maharal dismissed Rashi’s theory as baseless. Ibn Ezra explained that secretly speaking negatively of another is like eating of his flesh. Winking relates to the fact that gossipmongers often use nonverbal forms of communications, including eye movements and facial expressions, to smear others without getting caught (see Proverbs 6:13).
Leviticus 19:15 is a warning to judges not to pervert justice or to show favoritism on the basis of social class. The Mishnah understood the juxtaposition of verses to mean that 19:16, too, was a warning to the judiciary about improper professional behavior. Even after a split decision, a plain judgment is announced. It is forbidden, as a repugnant example of talebearing, for a member of the judicial panel to approach a litigant after trial and convey that he voted in the litigant’s favor but was overruled by the majority (Mishnah Sanhedrin 3:7). The overly talkative judge has no right to expose his colleagues’ voting record.
The Jewish Study Bible groups together verses 15-16 and explains the latter verse as an admonishment against the miscarriage of justice, whether by sin of commission or of omission. “Do not spread [false] rumors among your countrymen [to have unjust charges brought against a person]; do not stand by the blood of your fellow [i.e. ignore bloodshed, thus preventing charges from being brought against the perpetrator.]” The Talmud identifies Leviticus 19:16 as the Scriptural warning against מוציא שם רע, defamation or calumny (Ketuboth 46a). The classic Biblical example of calumny is a new husband’s claim that his bride lacked virginity because of a post-betrothal dalliance (Deuteronomy 22:14). In such cases, rekhilut, if not exposed as false, could have fatal consequences. On the other hand, the Midrash warns those able to offer truthful testimony that their continued silence makes them partially liable for the blood of those they could have saved had they acted (Sifra Kedoshim 2). The Contemporary English Version neatly ties together the two halves of 19:16. “Don't be a gossip, but never hesitate to speak up in court, especially if your testimony can save someone's life.”
The Midrash also interprets לא תלך רכיל בעמך to mean “that you not act as a merchant who merely loads up his horse and departs.” Baruch Levine explained the Sifra: “In dealing with one’s own kinsmen one should not be ‘all business,’ interested solely in profit, but, rather, considerate and friendly.” The typical merchant, sometimes identified in Scripture as a “Canaanite,” was a foreign trader with whom one had only a transactional relationship. But in dealing with kinsmen, co-religionists, and fellow citizens, one ought to exhibit warmth and feeling. Understood thusly, the full verse is a coherent whole. While one might be coldheartedly indifferent to the blood of a stranger, one could not possibly stand idly by and refrain from saving a kinsman with whom one has a real relationship beyond self-interest.
Levine’s interpretation of the Sifra reminded me of a letter written by Gershom Scholem to Hannah Arendt in 1963, in reaction to her book Eichmann in Jerusalem, which she wrote after covering the Eichmann trial as a journalist. Other than for the expression “the banality of evil,” the book largely has been forgotten. Though of German-Jewish extraction, Arendt wrote of Jewry’s suffering in a manner that appears devoid of feeling or emotional investment. Scholem noted her unsympathetic tone. “There is something in the Jewish language that is completely indefinable, yet fully concrete—what the Jews call Ahavath Israel, or love for the Jewish people. With you, my dear Hannah, as with so many intellectuals coming from the German left, there is no trace of it.”
The term אהבת ישראל is found nowhere in the Talmud. It is, however, found in Rishonic literature. Sefer Ha-Chinuch cites “Love thy neighbor as thyself (Leviticus 19:18) as the Scriptural basis for the commandment to love, and to offer compassionate care to, all fellow Israelites (Mitzvah 243). It is the performative corollary to the admonitions in Leviticus 19:16 against defamation and gross indifference.
Arendt exhibited a business-like, arms-length relationship to the Jewish subjects about whom she wrote. Additionally, she engaged in horrific rekhilut, nastily stereotyping categories of Jews. This is what she wrote to Karl Jaspers: “My first impression: On top, the judges, the best of German Jewry. Below them, the prosecuting attorneys, Galicians, but still Europeans. Everything is organized by a police force that gives me the creeps, speaks only Hebrew, and looks Arabic. Some downright brutal types among them. They would obey any order. And outside the doors, the Oriental mob, as if one were in Istanbul or some other half-Asiatic country. In addition, and very visible in Jerusalem, the peies and caftan Jews, who make life impossible for all reasonable people here.”
We are required to refrain from gossiping about our own people. The rabbinic tradition understood fully the great temptation to engage in Lashon Hara and was honest in its assessment that, from time to time, nearly all of us slip into committing that sin. The best way to avoid transgression is to refine, and concentrate upon, one’s Ahavath Israel. With Ahavath Israel firmly in mind, the prospect of slandering one’s fellow Jew becomes unthinkable.