False Facts and True Rumors: Lashon HaRa in Con­tem­po­rary Culture

Rab­bi Daniel Z. Feldman
  • Review
By – March 7, 2016

Lashon hara is the Hebrew term for deroga­to­ry speech. In False Facts and True Rumors: Lashon HaRa in Con­tem­po­rary Cul­ture, Rab­bi Daniel Z. Feld­man points out this is a top­ic well known through­out the Jew­ish world, but often mud­dled in mys­tique and mis­un­der­stand­ing.” Many Jew­ish thinkers, most notably Rab­bi Yis­rael Meir Kagan in his ground­break­ing work Hafetz Hay­im, sug­gest­ed an approach to appro­pri­ate speech that has become the stan­dard. How­ev­er, for the mod­ern read­er, Rab­bi Feld­man has cre­at­ed a book that is valu­able in elu­ci­dat­ing and expand­ing on this top­ic, pro­vid­ing guid­ance on nav­i­gat­ing these chal­lenges in con­tem­po­rary culture. 

False Facts and True Rumors is divid­ed into two sec­tions. The first pro­vides an overview of the the­o­ry behind the pro­hi­bi­tion. It con­sid­ers how lashon hara can dam­age the sub­ject, the speak­er, and soci­ety as a whole. Draw­ing on the work of aca­d­e­mics in the social sci­ences, Rab­bi Feld­man explores the moti­va­tions and out­comes of deroga­to­ry speech in both Jew­ish and gen­er­al sources. The sec­ond sec­tion is a deep dive into the appli­ca­tion of the pro­hi­bi­tion, con­sid­er­ing issues in many realms of every­day life includ­ing edu­ca­tion, busi­ness, seek­ing a life part­ner, and using social media. The sec­tion con­cludes with three chap­ters on oblig­a­tions about repair­ing the dam­age caused by lashon hara, includ­ing finan­cial resti­tu­tion, seek­ing for­give­ness from an injured par­ty, and per­son­al repen­tance. The book con­cludes with a pre­sen­ta­tion of the halakhic rul­ings of Rab­bis Her­shel Schachter and Mordechai Willig — both of whom are major rab­binic decisors for Mod­ern Ortho­doxy and, like Feld­man him­self, roshei yeshi­va of Rab­bi Isaac Elchanan The­o­log­i­cal Seminary.

In a con­sid­er­a­tion of lashon hara in con­tem­po­rary cul­ture, False Facts and True Rumors tack­les what psy­chol­o­gists have called the online dis­in­hi­bi­tion effect.” Social media presents an unprece­dent­ed oppor­tu­ni­ty to be phys­i­cal­ly and emo­tion­al­ly dis­con­nect­ed from the sub­ject and the reper­cus­sions of one’s speech. Rab­bi Feld­man presents the unique chal­lenges of main­tain­ing the pro­hi­bi­tion against lashon hara in the dig­i­tal age and, in a bal­anced approach, con­cludes that the effects of the inter­net should be con­sid­ered care­ful­ly and under­stood to the great­est extent pos­si­ble so that the advan­tages of uti­liz­ing the Inter­net can be max­i­mized while the risks can be account­ed for.”

The intend­ed audi­ence of Rab­bi Feldman’s book is clear­ly the expe­ri­enced read­er of Jew­ish phi­los­o­phy and prac­tice. Nev­er­the­less, the author writes in an acces­si­ble style, per­mit­ting the layper­son to probe this com­pli­cat­ed top­ic. His book leaves the read­er with the under­stand­ing that even with the best of inten­tions, we are like­ly all guilty of deroga­to­ry speech and need to work to min­i­mize our con­tri­bu­tion to this social ill in our­selves and oth­ers. False Facts and True Rumors gives us the oppor­tu­ni­ty to explore lashon hara with seri­ous­ness and sensitivity.

Relat­ed Content:

Jonathan Fass is the Man­ag­ing Direc­tor of Edu­ca­tion­al Tech­nol­o­gy and Strat­e­gy at The Jew­ish Edu­ca­tion Project of New York.

Discussion Questions