Koren/Maggid recently sent me a review copy of the extraordinary "False Facts and True Rumors: Lashon HaRa in Contemporary Culture" by Rabbi Daniel Z. Feldman.
[For those unfamiliar with the term, Lashon ha-Ra, literally "an evil tongue", is used colloquially as a catch-all term for various offenses in which ones speech causes unnecessary harm to another, including gossipping and talebearing.]
I started off skeptical. Another book on Lashon ha-Ra? What will it say that we haven't heard a hundred times before?
Many existing books emphasize the importance of shemirat ha-lashon, the guarding of one's tongue, but too often they leave the reader certain that (a) any speech that could be deemed derogatory is always forbidden; (b) the punishment for lashon ha-ra is much more severe than one would think; (c) it is a mark of piety for a Jew to be extra-careful in this area. As a result, some combination of the fear of punishment and the pride in being holier than one's fellow can lead to people taking the laws of lashon ha-ra so far that they fail to speak out when the halacha and common sense demand that they do so.
Very quickly, I realized that this book was different. Rabbi Feldman comes at his material from the perspective that while lashon ha-ra is certainly both a significant sin and a character flaw, too many Jews apply the prohibition to situations where there is a positive requirement to speak up to protect others from potential or likely harm. He sets out to set the record straight.
And so, in order to enable the reader to better balance the demands of guarding one's tongue versus protecting one's self and others from harm, Rabbi Feldman proceeds in masterful form to provide a thorough education in this area full of subtleties.
The first half of the book is given over to "The Theory." Rabbi Feldman starts with the traditional Jewish sources, analyzing and comparing them to discern the exact nature of the prohibition, or rather, the prohibitions. What forms of damage are done to the subject, the speaker, the listener, and society as a whole? How can they be analogized to civil torts? Are there circumstances where some aspect of the situation not only outweighs the consideration of lashon ha-ra, but removes it from the realm of lashon ha-ra altogether? He establishes these themes and provides a deep foundation, but does not yet draw any conclusions.
The main thrust of the first section is a brilliant survey of the various forms of cognitive biases that we are subject to. For each one, he explains how the bias works, and then relates it to the various forms of forbidden speech. By the end of Part One, the reader has a vocabulary and a framework with which to understand the practical application of the halacha and the psychological theory to the real world.
Part One is an exemplar of Torah uMaddah, the use of science to illuminate the wisdom of Torah law and of Torah to provide a moral frame in which to understand science.
Even if the book ended here, I would strongly recommend it. But in Part Two, Rabbi Feldman redeems the promise of Part One, by continuing his careful analysis of the issues. In each of several categories, he teaches how to weigh the good and harm that will be done from a particular speech act, to determine whether a particular speech act is forbidden, permitted, or mandated. He shows how different great rabbis approached each case, and explores how their varying legal models of lashon ha-ra lead to their rulings -- and sometimes, how their rulings illuminate their legal models.
The book is thoroughly footnoted and the list of sources is both extensive and wide-ranging. (The bibliography is 40 pages long.) Many of the footnotes go into great depth if one is interested, but if one wishes to skip them, the main body text is readable and approachable.
Rabbi Feldman's book belongs on every Jewish family's shelves. He has given us neither a polemic nor a mere feel-good book. Rabbi Feldman brings the study of the laws of proper speech up to the level of sophistication, rigor, and intellectual honesty that we have come to expect from the best modern halachic resources.