The Rise of Lashon Hara Awareness in the Late 19th Century Makes Perfect Sense

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This week we read Parshas Kedoshim. Some of the most well-known and important commandments are in this week’s reading. Kedoshim is one source that teaches us that we are prohibited from engaging in negative speech, commonly known as Lashon Hara.

A few weeks ago I compiled a rudimentary list of fairly obvious ways that historical trends within Torah Judaism has either been heavily influenced or borrowed from its surrounding culture. (See: Torah and the Winds of Change) In the weeks since, I’ve been on the lookout for more examples of this phenomenon. I thought of something very interesting during Pesach after seeing a Facebook post by the great Gideon Slifkin.

This was his post:

It’s a nice point and reinforces the importance of adhering to the real Torah position on reporting abuse, the one that holds that reporting abuse to the authorities is not Lashon Hara. Regardless, it made me think of the how Lashon Hara is emphasized more in the modern era than ever before. There is no authoritative text dedicated to the laws of proper speech that would serve as the precursor to the Chofetz Chaim. It’s the first of its kind. Subsequent to the publication and immense popularity of the book, Orthodox Jews have placed much value on the virtues of proper speech.0_99103_ffb3628f_XXL

I attended Ner Israel Mechina High School in Baltimore. The high school policy was to moderately discourage the students from studying mussar books in 9th and 10th grade. The reasons are not important, but I loved the policy. There were two exceptions to the rule, the commentary of the Vilna Gaon on Pirkei Avos and Chofetz Chaim. That’s how deep Chofetz Chaim has burrowed into the consciousness of our society. It’s one of two recommended volumes on character development for younger high school students.

That means there was a shift in values sometime in the mid to late 19th century. The Chofetz Chaim may have initiated this movement on his own through some intuition. He may have just done what he touhght was right and it happened to catch on. Or, he may have been riding a wave of change in his time and place that reflected similar values.

One of the greatest contributions to all of legal writing is the great article by Justice Brandeis and Justice S. Warren, “The Right to Privacy.” This article established an legally recognized expectation of privacy for all United States citizens. The article was published in 1890, just 17 years after the publication of Chofetz Chaim. Brandeis and Warren would not have written their article in 1830 or 1685 or 1328. Their article was a clear response to the challenges of their era.

“Recent inventions and business methods call attention to the next step which must be taken for the protection of the person, and for securing to the individual what Judge Cooley calls the right “to be let alone.” Instantaneous photographs and newspaper enterprise have invaded the sacred precincts of private and domestic life; and numerous mechanical devices threaten to make good the prediction that “what is whispered in the closet shall be proclaimed from the house-tops.”

The popularity of newspapers and photography in the mid 19th century gave rise to a growing concern over privacy. People’s private business was being broadcast at an unprecedented pace and with an irreverence that clouded better judgment. It was a brave new world.

To address these new, modern concerns, “The Right to Privacy” was published in the Harvard Law Review. The authors conclude:

“In general, then, the matters of which the publication should be repressed may be described as those which concern the private life, habits, acts, and relations of an individual, and have no legitimate connection with his fitness for a public office which he seeks or for which he is suggested, or for any public or quasi public position which he seeks or for which he is suggested, and have no legitimate relation to or bearing upon any act done by him in a public or quasi public capacity.”

This policy provided the first legal framework for curbing the publication of gossip and slander. It was their legal solution to a new social problem.

Parenthetically, the privacy concerns of 1890 sound familiar to us today, but they are hilariously out of proportion with modern privacy concerns. The law has not adequately addressed the current concerns, but I think that the laws of Lashon Hara are sufficiently pliable to give us a framework for dealing with the challenges of modernity.

I think it’s likely that the same social concerns that forced Justices Brandeis and Warren to pen “The Right of Privacy,” influenced Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagen to codify a comprehensive text on the laws of Lashon Hara. It wasn’t on a whim that he published Chofetz Chaim. It wasn’t an accident. The Chofetz Chaim was published to meet the demands of its time. The rise of the mass media caused the rise of concern over privacy. It also likely influenced Rabbi Kagen to take the initiative to write a book of Jewish Law and inspiration to meet those same concerns.

It’s impossible that “The Right to Privacy” inspired the publication of Chofetz Chaim because it was written 17 years later. It’s also nearly impossible that Justices Brandeis and Warren were influenced by Chofetz Chaim. Brandeis was a Jew, but it seems extremely unlikely that either of them read the book. Thus, the most reasonable explanation for both publications were common social concerns. The new information era demanded fresh ideas and a shift in perspective.

Thus, we have an additional example of the attitudes and values of the Torah lifestyle being influenced by outside factors. Prior to 1873, Lashon Hara did not have the exalted status that it has today. That is a shift in values. It’s possible this sight was completely shaped by internal concerns. But after seeing the same elements contributing to “The Right of Privacy,” I think Ockham would agree that his razor would suggest that both shifts in attitude were shaped by the challenges and milieu of the late 19th century.

As for us, the winds of change that brought Chofetz Chaim and vigilance over our speech to prominence are only more conspicuous in 2014. The laws of Lashon Hara apply now more than ever. In the digital era they are more relevant and vital than ever. Familiarize yourself with the laws. Be careful about what you say. And equally important, know when negative speech is not considered Lashon Hara so that we do not use it as a shield to protect the guilty and harm the innocent. Justice Brandeis was responsible for establishing the right to privacy, but he was equally known for coining the phrase “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.”

The proper approach requires balance. Let us hope that we can all find that balance in our private lives, digital interactions, and meeting the challenges of dealing with predators and villains in our community.