Rabbi Zvi Hirschfield at Limmud Winnipeg. (photo by Rebeca Kuropatwa)
It was a packed room at the Gray Academy of Jewish Education during Rabbi Zvi Hirschfield’s session on gossip at Winnipeg’s Limmud festival in March. Some 80 attendees listened as Hirschfield steered the dialogue through biblical excerpts, and a discussion of gossip from ancient times to today.
Hirschfield grew up in Chicago. He studied for a number of years at Israel’s Yeshivat Har Etzion. After completing a BA in history at Columbia University, he did graduate work at Harvard University in medieval and modern Jewish thought. He received smicha from Israel’s Chief Rabbinate and has taught adult students of all ages at the Pardes Institute in Jerusalem for 15 years. Hirschfield lives in Gush Etzion with his wife, Dena, and their four children.
Gossip, he told those gathered, is destructive in many ways. Gossip can include inaccurate information, it can ruin reputations, it often lacks context and is especially subject to interpretation by the gossipper.
“The most obvious form of gossip that’s negative is when [the information is] false,” said Hirschfield. “I think we can all agree there is no possible justification that we’re comfortable with about sharing false information about somebody.”
What about sharing information that is true, however? To answer, Hirschfield led the audience on an exploration of a biblical passage from Numbers, 12:1-15. He explained, “We know that Aaron and Miriam are speaking about their brother, not an unusual family dynamic – two siblings speaking about the third sibling, seemingly saying something comparative. But, we know that God gets angry and views this as a sin.”
Even praise can be considered verboten, he said. “Even if I say something outright nice about somebody, the rabbis still seem to be saying that we should be very careful about that,” said Hirschfield.
“Why will [praise] bring about negatives?” asked Hirschfield. He gave an example. “I hear something good about Jim. I suddenly feel an urge [to think] something not so nice about Jim. So, when a name comes up, the rabbis are saying my instinct is well, yeah, Jim might be generous, but he’s also a lousy driver. We want to be helpful, but a little piece of us is taking a certain pleasure in sharing the information and creating a connection. We feel better about our own lives if we hear that somebody else is doing worse. I must be an OK person, because I would never do what Jim and his cousin did.”
He contined, “The rabbis seem to be saying that even when we are saying good things, there is an impulse to want to go to the negative. There is an agenda there whether we are aware of it or not. The rabbis are saying the other agenda is always there – always ready to emerge – when other people and their lives become the topic of our conversation.”
Hirschfield went on to talk about Moses (Moshe), who was referred to in the Torah as an anav [humble person]. He explained that this means Moses “was not in it for himself, not wanting his position for himself…. He felt his [brother Aaron] would be hurt and his only reaction was concern for his brother. It should be that way. An anav is somebody who doesn’t put themselves at the centre.
“I’m going to argue this is also the principle behind what happens with gossip,” he added. “So many of us fall into the trap that our sense of well-being is based on us looking to the left and the right. And, it’s such a deep trap that, even when we are trying to help, there’s a little piece of us that can’t help to cherish that nugget of information and go home and think, ‘I’m not as bad as Jim. I’m doing OK.’
“While sometimes we should share information to protect ourselves and other people, we have to be what we are thinking and make sure we are anavim. Moshe would share information, not to harm, but out of concern, out of love and out of care. If we want to be anavim and we’re not living our lives in comparison or competition, I don’t think there’s a danger.”
However, he clarified, “I’m not anti all competition. We can be motivated by other people’s success. If you learn a lot of Talmud, that motivates me to also learn a lot of Talmud, and I think that’s OK.”
The way Hirschfield sees it, “creating a holy community built on the us as opposed to being me … being about me and you is the way to go. Trying to find that success by bringing down other people takes away from communal holiness … and that’s the challenge.”
God, he continued, “is described as holy, because God doesn’t have to compete with anyone. [However, human beings] will try to win through fair means and sometimes through foul. Sometimes we’ll feel good because of our own accomplishments and sometimes we will feel good because of other people’s failure.” The alternative is to “aspire to create a shared context where we are all building something.”
Self-interest is not inherently bad, however. “We’re never going to be without self-interest,” he said. “We’re never going to lose our egos. We’re never going to lose that sense of … the way I figure out how I’m doing is by looking at other people. We’re human beings, and that’s clear.
“If I find myself constantly seeking out negative information about the people I’m around and I’m constantly supplying negative information, I’d want to use that as a type of mirror and say, ‘Wait a minute. Where am I? What’s going on with me that I am so excited and so interested to hear about other people’s failures? What is it about the fact that when I hear good news about somebody there’s a piece of me that wants to knock that down?’”
The focus, then, can be on the building a “holy community,” he said. “I think, for all of us here, that’s a way we can think about. How engaged am I in creating holy community? How committed am I to trying to build something with other people as opposed to building up my own ego by competing with others and tearing them down?
In closing, he said, “I think gossip, the rabbis are telling us, is one of the chief ways we can check in with ourselves to see where we are – comparing ourselves only to our better selves, finding ways to lift other people without looking to gain personally, using praise only when talking about God, and to act as an anav.”
Rebeca Kuropatwa is a Winnipeg freelance writer.