The Industry of Evil Speech

Image: Assorted tabloid headlines

Jennifer Aniston is fed up. She is not pregnant, and she’s tired of telling people that she isn’t pregnant. This week the Huffington Post published her article, For the Record, in which she writes about what it is like to be fodder for the tabloids.

Gossip is a huge industry. It masquerades as “news” and in the U.S. the people who profit from it talk righteously about the First Amendment and the public’s “right to know.” It is enormously profitable: in 2011, industry revenues topped three billion dollars.

In Hebrew, the word for gossip is rechilut (reh-khee-LOOT) and it is one of the kinds of speech that are strictly forbidden in Jewish tradition.

You shall not go up and down as a talebearer among your people; neither shalt you stand idly by the blood of your neighbor: I am the Holy One. – Leviticus 19:16.

We often cite the second half of that verse but it bears noticing that the two concepts (talebearing and blood) are mentioned together. Gossip has consequences, even when the reports are true, as Ms. Aniston illustrates in her article. Paparazzi make people’s lives miserable; they engage in unsafe practices like car chases and ambushes. They harass not only the celebrity but children and employees and bystanders. They do this because tabloids and magazines like People pay a huge premium for “gotcha” pictures which appear to tell a salacious story or which paint the celebrity in an unfavorable light.

Rechilut, gossip, is a serious matter for Jews. Maimonides explains that it is even worse to spread reports about someone if those reports may damage their reputation. This is what is known as the sin of lashon harah, “evil speech.”

Who is a gossiper? One who collects information and [then] goes from person to person, saying: “This is what so-and-so said;” “This is what I heard about so-and-so.” Even if the statements are true, they bring about the destruction of the world.

There is a much more serious sin than [gossip], which is also included in this prohibition: lashon harah, that is, relating deprecating facts about a colleague, even if they are true. – Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot De’ot

And this is in fact what the gossip mongers sell under the guise of “entertainment news.” The headlines are always the same: speculation about marital infidelity, weight gain, weight loss, pregnancy (and who’s the father?) and so on.

Some may argue that when someone goes into public life, they sign up for this treatment. But the fact is that other human beings do not exist for our entertainment. They do not owe us anything except the time and expertise for which we pay them. It is fine to watch Jennifer Aniston’s work as an actress on TV, but it is not acceptable to read gossipy speculation about her in People or the National Enquirer.

Because you see, we are the other half of the equation: this evil industry would not exist if we did not provide a market for it. When we click on a gossipy item, we provide a market. When we buy the Inquirer or People or Us, we provide a market. When we watch TMZ or similar shows, we provide a market.

When I see a tempting item on the screen or the cover of a magazine, I remind myself, “Is it really my business?” The answer is usually “no.”

Let’s step off the lashon harah assembly line. Life is too precious to waste it on trash.


Obama in Dallas

Image: President Barack Obama (

President Obama gave a remarkable speech in Dallas yesterday. If you did not have a chance to listen to it, you can find the text of the speech here.

Usually when U.S. presidents give speeches at memorial services, the content is fairly innocuous. They seek to comfort, and avoid controversy at all costs. That was what I expected today when I flipped on the radio to listen.

Instead, I heard my President speak to many different constituencies, seeking to draw them together despite a week in which events have driven us apart. He spoke respectfully and very personally of each of the fallen police officers in Dallas. He acknowledged that they were killed as they watched over a peace march, a march that called the nation to witness the deaths of two men at the hands of police. He spoke to their families and fellow officers, but not only to them. He spoke as well to all those who marched peacefully under the #BlackLivesMatter banner, acknowledging that all is not well and that we all need to do more.

I am sure that there were some who heard that speech for whom it was “too much” or “not enough.” I can only imagine the care that went into crafting those words, walking the tightrope of agonies, but it was clear to me that he was trying to bridge that gap and bring us all together again.

So if you didn’t hear the speech, read it. Don’t settle for soundbites on the evening news; the whole thing ran to 40 minutes. It’s all worth hearing.

“We do not persevere alone. Our character is not found in isolation. Hope does not arise by putting our fellow man down, it is found by lifting others up. – Barack Obama, 7/12/16

Philando Castile. Alton Sterling.

Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world.  – Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5

Two entire worlds disappeared in the last 24 hours when Philando Castile and Alton Sterling died at the hands of police. Witnesses recorded both shootings, and the police do not look good in the video.

Late last night, my son posted on his Facebook page: “I am up late tonight, unable to sleep, sad angry and scared. I didn’t know these men, but I could have. Next time this could be someone I know and love.”

Do not tell me that “All Lives Matter.” I know that. The question is, do we American taxpayers know it? Because right now it looks as if we do not know it. It looks like those in power in America believe that black lives don’t matter. It looks like we and our police believe that all African American males are so dangerous that one must shoot first and ask questions later.


That is why it is necessary to say #BlackLivesMatter. We say it because we must learn it. “All Lives Matter” is a platitude that attempts to cover our inadequacies with the obvious. #BlackLivesMatter points to the problem – the fact that this morning, two more families are without beloved fathers who were primary breadwinners.

Two entire worlds were destroyed. It matters.



The Stealth Rabbi Strikes Again

Image: Nine Jews demonstrating against Trump’s racism. Three people in this photo are rabbis – can you tell which ones? Photo courtesy of Bend the Arc, a great social justice organization.

If you say “rabbi” to most people, the image that comes up is a bearded man. I don’t look like that rabbi.

Actually, I look like my grandmother: Irish-American, round, soft, motherly, maybe grandmotherly. My haircut (a buzz cut) disrupts the effect a bit, but it doesn’t make me look more like that mental image of a rabbi. I usually wear a hat, which might be a kippah (looks like a rabbi) or an A’s baseball cap (not so much.)

As a result, I often surprise people; I’m a stealth rabbi. “What do you do?” someone will say to me, as Americans do, and I will reply, “I’m a rabbi.” If they identify as Jewish, this may produce a panicked response:

“Oh! I’m Jewish. Well, I’m a bagels and cream cheese Jew, you know, not religious. Seinfeld. …” And then they will tell me why they haven’t been to synagogue, or what’s wrong with synagogue, or who drove them from synagogue… I listen. Usually it’s a long speech.



They think I’m going to pass judgment upon them, and I’m not. Depending on the story, I’m sad that Jewish community didn’t work out for them, or appalled at what drove them away. Mostly, I’m sad that they have no idea what Judaism is for; their Jewish identity is a ball and chain they drag along through life.

What I’d like to say to them, if we had longer for a real conversation, is this:

I’m not here to judge you. As a rabbi, it’s true, I sometimes function as a judge, but only in very limited situations. Mostly I’m a teacher, because learning is at the heart of Jewish life. So relax: I’m harmless!

Would you like to take that ball and chain, and turn it into something a little easier to carry around? Maybe into a walking stick, something to support you when you are tired and afraid? Or maybe into a beautiful box of treasures, an inheritance of marvels?

All you need to do is open your mind and heart to learn. You pick the topic: what’s bugging you about life? There’s are several Jewish approaches to it, I promise you. Or, if you are really adventurous, what about Judaism bothers you? Let’s look critically at the tradition, and find new bits of it. Let’s debate! Let’s play with it, have a good time!

There’s the wide world of social justice work that Jews have been doing forever. There are great organizations just waiting for you. Whatever is your passion, you can pursue it as a Jew, with other Jews, amplified far beyond your social media or letter to the editor. You can tap into the riches of the tradition to support you in that work, too.

If food really is at the heart of Jewish identity for you, let’s look at that. There’s more than bagels out there for you to enjoy. There’s the myriad of Ashkenazi and Sephardic cuisines, and Middle Eastern food. There are chef/scholars like Michael Twitty, who explores the places where African and Southern and Jewish foods intersect. There’s Tami Weiser, who will give you beautiful recipes and invite you to think about them.

My role as a rabbi is to be a resource. I have spent years cramming my head and heart full of Torah, and learning the sources so that I can make them available to you. Some rabbis, congregational rabbis, create and maintain environments where Jews can be Jews – where you can be Jewish. Not all those environments are like the synagogue you remember. Some rabbis are chaplains, committed to hanging in there with people who are suffering. I’m a teaching rabbi: I am here to help you learn.

And yes, we’ll have bagels.

Elie Weisel z”l

Elie Weisel survived the Shoah. More than surviving, he insisted that we talk about it. He insisted that our talk not be an exercise in self-pity, but that we cultivate a willingness to put ourselves on the line for any group of people denied the dignity of their own humanity. He did so himself, time and again.

Now he is gone, but his words remain.

If you have not yet had a chance to read one of Mr. Weisel’s books, start with Night. It is one of the world’s great books.

What is z”l?

Z”L after a person’s name means that that person is dead. It is an abbreviation for the Hebrew phrase Zichrono livracha. [Of Blessed Memory.] The feminine form is zichronah livracha. The correct way to pronounce the abbreviation is “zahl.”

Jews love acronyms. If there is a phrase that takes a long time to write, why not just abbreviate it it? Added bonus: that way you don’t have to spell it! And if you put a vowel or two back in there, you can make it into an acronym!

When a word in Hebrew is abbreviated, there’s a little sign put into the letters that remain to clue you in to what’s going on. It looks like a lone quotation mark and most people refer to it as a “choopchik.”


Z”L  = Zichrono  + choopchick + Livracha = Of Blessed Memory, or “ZAHL”

in Hebrew, it looks like this:


And for your further edification and amusement, here’s a list of other common Hebrew and Hebrew-ish acronyms.


A Succinct Lesson on Jewish Thought

Image: A flowering cholla cactus. Photo by Kenneth Redmond on

An old Ashkenazi gentleman once said to me, “I don’t know what happens when we die. Some say we go to heaven with the pearly gates. Some say it’s a big yeshivah up there. But me, I think it’s just this life and then, you know, the worms. So we better do our best in this life, since it’s all we’ve got.”

In truth, there’s no single Jewish idea about the afterlife. I have always like this man’s description of the puzzle, though, because it seems to hit all the main points of a typical Jewish worldview:

  1. Life is full of mystery.
  2. Some say this, others say that.
  3. But yes, I have an opinion, which is not a rosy one.
  4. The important thing is to live a good life.