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Evil Tongues

A haftorah of gossip and godliness

Liel Leibovitz
February 05, 2010
Motion picture still by the Edison Manufacturing Co.(Library of Congress)
Motion picture still by the Edison Manufacturing Co.(Library of Congress)

Inevitably, at some point or other during the course of each year, a friend drops by with a resolution. “That’s it,” he or she will swear serenely, over brunch or coffee or dry gin martinis, “I’ll no longer speak lashon hara.”

Hebrew for “evil tongue,” it’s Judaism’s catchall phrase for slander, gossip, and other forms of potentially hurtful speech. And it’s second only to tikkun olam—repairing the world—in the short list of phrases Jews who aren’t necessarily devout turn to when they crave a spot of spirituality.

But let’s be honest: swearing off slander is no act of righteousness. Neither is it a particularly Jewish act—most cohesive sects, be they major religions or World of Warcraft guilds , have some sort of prohibition on members speaking ill of one another. If they didn’t, after all, what kind of people would their adherents become?

In all likelihood, they’d become like me. I revel in lashon hara. I roll evil words in my mouth like fine wine. I’m not talking, of course, about lies, or insinuations, or other crass forms of untruth that only appeal to vicious and feeble minds. I’m talking about gossip. To me, gossip is like a sweet symphony, moving and soothing and sublime. Someone I know was dumped via email? Fell out with her family? Fell in with a cult? Tell me all about it.

Lucky for me, my taste for blather is shared by some late, great men. Like Isaiah: in this week’s haftorah, the prophet has no qualms admitting to being a bit of a flibbertigibbet. To God, no less.

It’s a stunning bit of prose. “I saw the Lord sitting on a high and exalted throne,” speaketh the prophet, “and His lower extremity filled the Temple. Seraphim stood above for Him, six wings, six wings to each one; with two he would cover his face, and with two he would cover his feet, and with two he would fly.”

If he were retelling the story to modern-day listeners, Isaiah might have said that seeing God freaked him out. And retell the story he certainly would have: looking the seraphim in the eye, Isaiah immediately confesses to being fond of idle chatter.

“Woe is me,” he tells the winged fellows, “for I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and amidst a people of unclean lips I dwell, for the King, the Lord of Hosts have my eyes seen.”

The seraphim, however, have been around the block a time or two. They’ve met everyone from Adam to Zebulun. With a light flutter of his wings, one of the angels hovers over to the altar, grabs a glowing coal, and touches it to Isaiah’s lips. In a good way—the prophet isn’t harmed, just enlightened.

“Behold,” says the seraph, “this has touched your lips; and your iniquity shall be removed, and your sin shall be atoned for.” Because no bit of redemption goes unpunished, Isaiah is ordered to deliver a message to the people: “Go and say to this people, ‘Indeed you hear, but you do not understand; indeed you see, but you do not know.’ This people’s heart is becoming fat, and his ears are becoming heavy, and his eyes are becoming sealed, lest he see with his eyes, and hear with his ears, and his heart understand, and he repent and be healed.”

A simple “Don’t Gossip” would have sufficed, but that’s not the message the divine creatures wish to convey. They understand that gossip is part of life, that curiosity and Schadenfreude and malice make up the human DNA just as much as compassion, altruism, and faith. What they want, then, is not an act of superhuman transcendence—one Jew did try just that, but he sort of ended up outside the fold—but rather attentiveness, which means doing all those things that we humans do but keeping our ears and hearts and minds open all the while.

Our ancestors understood this principle intuitively. Here they are, after all, in this week’s parasha, standing at the foot of Mount Sinai, awed by the presence of God, scared out of their minds. Turning to Moses, they are unequivocal: this, they say, is too much.

“You speak with us, and we will hear,” they tell their aging leader, “but let God not speak with us lest we die.” When it comes to divine words, speaking and listening are both extremely hard for humans to do.

Let us, then, relish our rumors. Let us call and text and email each other excitedly any time a tasty morsel of private information drops into our laps. And let us not feel ashamed of it anymore. Just as long as our eyes keep looking heavenward, there’s nothing wrong with occasionally dipping our tongues in the gutter.

Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.