You know when you’re having lunch with your friend in the local diner and even though you know you shouldn’t, you start gossiping about someone you both know? And all of a sudden you realize you’re in the local diner and the room just got really quiet, so you casually turn your head back to the left, then back to the right, and then back to face your friend? And then you continue the conversation, but this time in a hushed whisper, particularly hushed when mentioning names, and even more particularly hushed when you’re mentioning last names?
Yeah, you do. Don’t pretend like you don’t. Even though the bible prohibits it, the fact of the matter is, you likely engage in gossip on occasion. Studies show that a little bit of gossip (done “correctly,” whatever that means) is healthy and the reason it’s so addictive is not necessarily because you like to speak ill of others, but because gossiping apparently “helps build and cement connections with others.”
This study makes sense to me. I consider myself a fairly good person and I never (okay, hardly ever) gossip about anyone with the purpose of “causing the subject physical or monetary damage, or anguish or fear” as Lashon Hara is briefly defined at torah.org. If I were to analyze why I gossip, intentionally or unintentionally, it’s usually to learn more about the person I’m gossiping with or about. It’s more interrogative than vindictive or malicious.
When you live in a small community, gossip is inevitable. It may be outwardly or subtly discouraged. It may be frowned upon. It may be practiced by some, and shunned by others. But, regardless, there’s a reason you get more than 5 1/2 million results when you google the words “small town gossip.”
On a kibbutz, take the diner example above, and multiply it by 100.
I kid you not, but on the (ahem) rare occasion when my husband, Avi, and I talk about one of our new neighbors, we make sure to turn our heads from left to right and back again, and carefully whisper — even when we are inside our own home. It doesn’t matter if we are saying something nice, or something not so nice. We don’t want to be known as those “gossipy new olim down the street.”
We look around. Are the windows open? Did someone just peek their head through the unlocked door? Are there any children in our home that don’t belong to us?
Today, my husband and I were returning home and drove down the main road of the kibbutz. The car windows were down a smidgen so I whispered to him when I asked, “Does Shlomo (names changed to protect the innocent) have a job?” Avi stared at me as he placed his pointer finger to his lips. “Shhh…”
In the States, I might have continued in broken Hebrew, but unfortunately, in Israel there’s no talking smack about people right in front of their faces unless I manage to teach my husband Gibberish.
As we approached Shlomo, he stared at me, as if he knew I had been asking about him seconds earlier. I’m sure I was just being paranoid. But maybe not.
What’s the big deal?, you might ask. Is it so wrong that I wondered, innocently enough, if Shlomo had a job? Perhaps not, but in a small town, or a kibbutz in this case, asking a question like this out loud is as dicey as playing “Whisper Down the Lane.”
Your question, and your willingness to ask it, implies something about you. It implies whether you’re willing to let someone in or to be let in by someone else. It may be the make or break of a friendship. It may be the start of a rivalry or a resentment. As torah.org tells us, “Some statements are not outright Lashon Hara, but can imply Lashon Hara or cause others to speak it.” Meaning, much depends on who asks the question, in what context the question is asked, and who it’s asked of.
Therefore, wondering aloud if your new neighbor has a full-time job can be construed as gossip. Someone might think I’m implying Shlomo is a good-for-nothing, lazy bum because he doesn’t have a full time job. Someone might think I’m implying his wife thinks less of him or wears the pants in that family. Someone might think I’m sizing him up or down, and take it personally, even. Wondering, How do I measure up in her eyes?
It seems to me that the rules of Lashon Hara were created expressly for people living on a kibbutz. And if I want to play it safe as a newbie to this community, at least for a little while, I’d follow the Lashon Hara guidlines. (I’ve not yet read A.J. Jacobs, “The Year of Living Biblically,” but maybe it’s high time I should.)
Or at the very least, gossip like I do “It:”
Only with my husband and behind closed doors.
Jen Maidenberg is is a writer, editor, activist and former assistant editor at the Arizona Jewish Post. Visit her website at http://jenmaidenberg.com/.