donderdag 14 februari 2013

Committed Gossip

Lashon hara, or speaking evil, is expressly prohibited in the Jewish tradition.

But that does not hold for gossip, because if that were the case large parts of the Bible, the Mishnah and the Talmud suddenly would become incomprehensible. Actually, on many places in the text nothing else is done but that. In my idea gossip is even a core element of Jewish learning.

But then the meaning of ‘gossip’ must be properly understood. I understand by it: to become  agitated about the behavior of somebody else, to say that something is not done, to be indignant, to find something unfair – or the opposite –,  and that in a passionate way. And aloud.

I think many Jewish texts and commentaries are born from that kind of feelings generated by the behavior of patriarchs or other fellow compatriots. There is plenty of time taken to comment on that behavior and those deeds, approvingly or disapprovingly. I call it gossip, but without any negative connotation. On the contrary, a community worthy of the name can not do without. In good family relationships or social clubs, the conduct of its members múst be subject to debate. Because how else do you get to know what you believe in or not? How else do you achieve moral clarity? Where else do you get your prophets from?

There is a lot of judgement going on in Tanach, with respect to several Biblical figures. Jacob for example praises some of his children. He calls Joseph a fruitful vine, Jisachar is a strong ass, and Naphtali a hind in freedom. But he speaks less flattering about a number of other sons. Dan asserts the law, but he is like a viper on the path. Benjamin is called a ravening wolf and about Simon and Levi: they contrive nothing but violence.

The latter statement consequently triggers one after the other commentator. They never seem to stop talking about how this should be understood. For example, Nechama Leibowitz in her commentary on Genesis: “Jacob took a very grave view of his sons’ conduct. Many decades after the massacre of Shechem, the Patriarch, on his deathbed, severely reprimanded Simeon and Levi for their dread deed, though all were now safely and comfortably settled in Egypt. His indignation at the crime does not seem to have diminished, with the passing of time. On the contrary, it seems Jacob’s first reaction is eminently practical. They had placed the whole family in danger, a minority surrounded by hostile tribes, far outnumbering them. But on his death bed, no such consideration could exist. The House of Israel was secure, enjoying the protection of the Egyptian viceroy. His anger is now directed at the cruelty and injustice of their deed”.

Another fragment which is much commented on concerns an imputation in Exodus to the address of the Israelites in their exodus from Egypt: “Thus they stripped the Egyptians”.  That's quite a statement, commentators cannot easily ignore it. So there is much written and said about it. And fortunately, the text offers various clues to a relativization of the theft, though I sometimes prefer the unsalted imputation to implausible excuses from later generations.

But it may be clear that in many of the discussions this question is at stake: did it go decently or not? If gossip is conceived this way, then it is allowed. I call it committed gossip.

Also see Squabbling