Complete the following sentence: If you don’t have something nice to say…
(a) I’m not sure what you should do.
(b) don’t say anything at all.
(c) pull up a chair next to me.
If you answered ‘a’ or ‘c’ then you need this week’s Torah portion.
Actually, we all need to turn to this week’s second Torah portion (yes, we have two this week!). It is called “Metzora,” which is typically translated as “leper” even though the disease described by the Torah is most likely NOT leprosy. That’s another story for another time.
Whatever the disease actually was, it has historically been associated with slander, because the phrase in Hebrew “one who brings forth a bad name” or “Motzi shem ra – רע שם מוציא,” shares a number of consonantal sounds with the name of this disease and our portion, “Metzora – מצורע”. Metzora was further associated with slander when Miriam was stricken with leprosy as a result of her speaking against Moshe and his wife (Numbers 12:1-13)
So, it has become a tradition to share some of our tradition’s views on slander or L’shon Hara on the Shabbat when we read this portion. And if we’re going to talk about it, the pre-eminent authority on the subject of L’shon Hara is Rabbi Yisrael Meir HaKohen (1838 -1933). He was a grocer in a small Polish town called Radun, which was not too far from Vilna. He was better known as the Hafetz Hayim (“one who desires life”) because that was the title of his first book, which he published anonymously. In the Hafetz Hayim, the author thoroughly researched and explained the Jewish view on L’shon Hara.
As much as the Hafetz Hayim tried to dissuade all Jews from engaging in L’shon Hara, he recognized that there were some exceptions. For example, one is permitted to speak L’shon Hara if it will save another person from harm.
For many years, victims of abuse and harassment were persuaded to remain silent in order to save the reputation of the perpetrator or, worse, the reputation of the institution in which the abuse or harassment took place. The result of such an approach was that perpetrators were allowed to move on to their next unwitting victim. There was no warning. As much as the Jewish legal system disapproves of L’shon Hara, it cannot tolerate such callousness. As Leviticus 19:16 teaches us, “Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.” We have an obligation to the other members of our community.
The long overdue response to silence in the face abuse or harassment is the #metoo movement in which (mostly) women have called out the men who have abused their positions of power and harmed the less powerful people around them in a variety of ways. Sadly, the #metoo movement has come to our NJ Jewish community. Last week, Len Robinson resigned as executive director of NJY Camps after accusations arose regarding his treatment of young women at a previous job. Subsequently, some women have come forward with allegations about his behavior during his time in New Jersey (click here for the story).
I think it is important for us to discuss this story publicly. Not because I want to embarrass Len Robinson or the NJY Camps (where my son has gone to camp the last three summers). Not because I enjoy talking about this man’s demise and its impact on an important Jewish institution. I want to talk about it because our daughters need to know that they must not stay silent and tolerate such treatment. I want to talk about it to save another person from harm. And that is NOT L’shon Hara.