Schweich case demonstrates evils of ‘lashon hara’

By Rabbi Joseph Fred Benson

The death of Missouri Auditor Tom Schweich, a seemingly good and decent man, transcended the bounds of the acceptable. The Rev. Canon John C. Danforth reminded all of us that the adage “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” is a fallacy. 

The alleged “whisper campaign” targeting Schweich’s Jewish roots shows that words can kill. In the mid-18th century, Samuel Johnson wrote, “The greater the truth, the greater the libel.” Have we not learned the lessons of the past? Apparently not.

In Judaism, the phrase lashon hara, which literally translates as “evil tongue,” encompasses gossip. Judaism recognizes that the power of speech can harm. In the Yom Kippur liturgy, the viduy (confessional) prayer known as Al Chet/For All the Sins, lists 43, 11 of which encompass the power of speech. Yes, one-quarter of all sins that Jews repent for on Yom Kippur entail the power of speech.

But rabbi, I didn’t engage in gossip. I just told my dear friend that so-and-so’s son, such a good boy, did a good deed. Surely this cannot be lashon hara.


It is. The Torah, Talmud and other sources of Jewish law, ethics, liturgy and faith do not distinguish between good gossip and bad gossip. Gossip is gossip! Gossip is tale-bearing.

Information has become our new product, and segments of society sell information by such means as, “Did you hear that so-and-so is a Jew?” When was the last time you heard someone whisper, “Did you know he is a Presbyterian?” In this information age, society engages in gossip, of tale-bearing, through the “whisper” — of piercing an arrow through one’s heart, of holding a loaded revolver to one’s head and whispering.

In this age of instruments such as, Twitter, Facebook and other social media outlets, there is all the more reason to guard against engaging in lashon hara.

In the Holiness Code (Lev. 19:16), we read, “Thou shall not go up and down as a tale-bearer. In Leviticus 25:17, we are once again admonished, “Ye shall not wrong another,” an allusion to harming an individual through speech. We also read in the Holiness Code, “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your countrymen. Love your fellow as yourself: I am the L-rd.” (Lev. 19:18).

Gossip is vengeance. In The Babylonian Talmud (Tractate Shabbos 31a), Hillel the Elder teaches: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow man: This is the whole Torah; the rest is explanation; go and learn.” (Compare the Golden Rule in Christianity, “Do to others what you would want them to do to you. This is the meaning of the law of Moses and the teachings of the prophets.” [Matthew 7:12]). 

Gossip violates this basic tenet of ethics and religion that society needs if we are to persevere on a high plane.

Gossip does not have to be evil gossip. Gossip by its very nature is evil. Judaism teaches that gossip can lead to bloodshed, and that is why Torah commands that, “You shall not stand aside while your fellow’s blood is shed.” (Lev. 19:16). This verse has been interpreted to mean that one is prohibited from profiting from the death of another. 

Gossip may have contributed to the suicide of Schweich. And profiting from the death of an innocent man is prohibited.

Are we “the children of light” or “the children of darkness”? Just because I may not have encountered anti-Semitism (which I personally have), does not excuse me from taking up the sword of truth, the sword of righteousness in an attempt to end evil.

There is a story in 1 Samuel chapters 21-22 that illustrates the harm of even truthful gossip. It is the story of Doeg the Edomite. One day, Doeg saw Achimelekh the Kohein give David bread and a sword. It was a completely innocent transaction, it was done in the open. And Achimelekh would have told King Saul exactly the same if asked (which he later did). Yet King Saul misinterpreted this tale as proof that Achimelekh was supporting David’s rebellion. And what happened because of this tale-bearing? King Saul proceeded to slaughter all but one of the kohanim (priests) at Nob. Words do kill!

Am I free from guilt because I did not speak gossip? The answer is, no. 

“But rabbi, I haven’t engaged in gossip. I just listened to the ‘whisper.’ ” 

Of course, you have engaged in gossip. Talmud teaches that the one who listens to gossip being told is even worse than the person communicating the story, because no harm could be done if one refuses to listen to lashon hara (see Babylonian Talmud Tractate Arachin 15b). I cannot stress enough that those who engage in lashon hara subject themselves to being cut off from being admitted into Olam Haba (the World to Come). Murder, adultery and idolatry ban a person from olam haba. Lashon hara is the equivalent to these three cardinal sins (Arachin 15b).

Last, but not least, when we engage in gossip, we damage and destroy vital physical, spiritual and emotional aspects of our world. Lashon hara afflicts the emotional and social realms of civilization and of a civilized society. If certain people engaged in a “whisper” campaign against Schweich, they emotionally pulled the trigger that led to his death.

What happened seems to have been nothing less than a concerted campaign to destroy an individual through holchei rakhil – slandering a person. 

Danforth was right. This type of behavior must come to an immediate end. And we, society, owe it to the memory of Tom Schweich to take a stand against lashon hara.

If not now, when?

Rabbi Joseph Fred Benson is a University City native and grew up at Shaare Zedek Synagogue. He recently retired as the first archivist to the Supreme Court of Missouri.  Benson is a trained legal historian and lawyer who also teaches  Hebrew to adults in Jefferson City and performs life cycle functions throughout mid-Missouri.