Every day in families, friendships, workplaces, and congregations there are words spoken which unintentionally cause pain, hurt feelings, and misunderstandings.
For example, maybe you've been on the receiving end of someone's snarkiness or their storytelling about your private life. Or maybe you've had your own moments of talking about someone behind their back. Or maybe you didn't mean any harm, but it felt kinda right to dish a little about someone who wasn't there to clarify the details.
Some might say, "Hey, it's inevitable" or "Suck it up, life is a contact sport."
But in Judaism there are some fascinating teachings and guidelines on how to prevent unintentional pain to strangers, colleagues, and loved ones as a result of our choice of words.
IS IT CENSORSHIP OR IS IT MINDFULNESS?
In the 1870's in Radin, Russia there was a passionate rabbi named Yisrael Meir Kagan who was so focused on preventing pain from misspoken words and loose lips that he wrote an anonymous book called "Chofetz Chaim" (a Hebrew phrase which means the one who desires life and this phrase comes from Psalm 34):
"Who is the one who desires life (haChofetz Chaim)
who loves each day to see the good?
Guard your tongue from evil
and your lips from deceipt."
Within a few years, 4,000 copies of this book had been distributed to various traditional communities and people began calling Rabbi Kagan "The Chofetz Chaim." He had sparked something lasting and profound with his book, which essentially consists of a long list of guidelines from the written Torah and the oral Torah about how to see the good in life and how to prevent harm from the words you choose. This list of guidelines has been used ever since, mostly by observant Jews, for three purposes:
--to prevent gossip and character insinuations that can tear apart families, friendships, workplaces, and congregations.
--to help raise the level of conversation from pettiness to compassionate mindfulness.
--to help each of us not to get swayed or shmootzed by overhearing something that might be true or untrue about someone, but that leaves out important information or conveys a false impression.
In the large congregation where I grew up in Detroit, we didn't talk very much about Chofetz Chaim or the rules of compassionate speech. Like many modern congregations, we thought we could get along just fine without any firm guidelines. But in fact there were huge tensions and painful misunderstandings which arose from gossip, loose lips, and unintentionally insinuating statements about various leaders and members of the congregation.
Fifteen years ago I was doing some research and one-on-one interviews in Los Angeles to learn more about how Jews today practice or don't practice the traditional guidelines about compassionate speech. I found that for a small percentage of Jews today, the guidelines from Chofetz Chaim are considered to be "holy rules we ought to follow." For a much larger percentage of Jews today, these guidelines are considered to be "reasonable rules we ought to follow but we rarely do." Still other Jews consider the Chofetz Chaim's guidelines to be "censorship or rigidness that often get enforced with too much of a judgmental or shame-inducing tone of voice."
The most surprising thing I found out was how much a large number of people were uncomfortable when they were criticized for saying something that someone else considered "leshon hara (hurtful speech)." Since the vast majority of American Jews today have been raised in a society where people tend to bond by sharing intimate information about themselves and others (and since most Jews alive today have never been taught exactly what the guidelines for compassionate speech are in specific situations), many decent and good people told me that they "feel blind-sided when someone says, 'Oh, you shouldn't say that' or 'Watch out, that's leshon hara (hurtful speech).'" In most American Jewish families, communities and congregations today there seems to be no clear consensus or agreement on when to share information about someone else and when to keep silent.
Or as Yul Brynner used to say in The King and I, "It's a puzzlement."
DEVELOPING SOMETHING CREATIVE AND NEW
If you stop for a moment and ask yourself, "What do I want to practice in my own friendships and daily conversations about when to share personal information about someone else and when to respect confidentiality," what comes to mind as the guidelines you would like to follow? What are the questions and concerns you tend to have in your heart about finding the healthy balance between the freedom to speak honestly and the freedom to abstain from gossip or possibly off-putting statements about someone's positive or negative traits? What are the moments when you think to yourself, "Should I say something or should I be careful not to say too much because it might turn into something else--what is the right thing to do in this particular situation?"
To address this intriguing "puzzlement" of daily living, Ahavat Torah Congregation is going to attempt something new and somewhat unusual. Rather than being vague or unclear about what is compassionate speech and what might be hurtful speech, several members of the congregation and Rabbi Miriam Hamrell have suggested that this might be an excellent time to explore and discuss these important questions. What do each of us believe is the best way to prevent hurt feelings and misunderstandings? What would each of us prefer to have as guidelines for the future?
You are invited to participate in a unique creative, interactive process which will start in early March. You don't have to be a scholarly Jew and it doesn't matter if you've never before heard the name Chofetz Chaim or the words "leshon hara (hurtful speech)". What matters is that you bring your own insights, experiences, and sensibilities to this creative exploration.
On Tuesday night March 2nd at 7:30 pm and Tuesday night March 9th at 7:30 pm our congregation will have a two-part study session and discussion at the home of Jean Katz, 10383 Rochester Avenue in Westwood (between Wilshire and Ohio, just east of Beverly Glen) entitled: THE INTRICACIES OF DECIDING WHAT TO SAY AND WHAT NOT TO SAY: A Lively Discussion of Jewish Teachings on What Is or Is Not Leshon Hara, Plus How to Give Compassionate Feedback and How to Prevent Painful Misunderstandings (in Friendships, in Families, in Public, and in Private)
Of course you have a busy schedule and it's often overpacked. Or you might prefer to relax and watch your favorite television show that evening. But what if the conversation about compassionate speech truly needs your particular point of view and your unique insights? What if your own friendships and our congregation could be enhanced by the ideas and experiences you bring to this important issue? What if something you discover on one or both of those evenings could prevent you from losing a friend or hurting someone unintentionally?
PART ONE: THE ALL-ARE-INVITED STUDY SESSIONS
What you might find surprising and useful on Tuesday night March 2nd and Tuesday night March 9th is that there are some wonderful Jewish writings and ideas that can help us, our children, our grandchildren, our friends, and our colleagues to walk more gracefully through the mine-fields of human conversation. Both of these early March study and discussion sessions will combine traditional teachings, modern interpretations, and openness to the ideas of the people in the room.
With humor and helpful examples on both evenings, you will have a chance to go deeper into:
--How to understand the breakthrough insights and the practical advice of the Chofetz Chaim on how to prevent hurtful misunderstandings.
--How the Mussar (character refinement) movement in Judaism has helped clarify a gentler and less shaming way of giving feedback to someone who is saying things that make you uncomfortable.
--How a woman rabbi in the 21st century (Rabbi Margaret Moers Wenig, the Instructor of Liturgy and Homiletics at Hebrew Union College) has designed a more modern, less-shaming, and somewhat gentler way of applying the Chofetz Chaim's teachings to 21st century Jews who live in diverse American cities.
--How do each of us want to design our own version of these Jewish teachings on mindful speech and choosing our words more compassionately.
I will be facilitating the two study and discussion sessions with the intention of making sure that all diverse points of view are heard and respected. Please feel free to bring your questions, your concerns, your ideas for how you prefer these issues to be handled, and your willingness to learn how we can each be a blessing in all our interactions.
EVEN IF YOU'RE NOT QUITE SURE OF THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A LESHON HARA AND A LUCSHEN KUGEL, YOUR INSIGHTS, QUESTIONS, AND SUGGESTIONS REGARDING HOW TO HAVE HARM-FREE CONVERSATIONS ARE NEEDED AND WELCOMED. Please mark in your calendar to be at Jean Katz's house on Tuesday March 2nd and Tuesday March 9th at 7:30 pm both evenings.
PART TWO: THE FOLLOW-UP STEPS
After these two March 2010 study and discussion sessions, we will hopefully take this creative conversation about compassionate speech to a second level of insight and brainstorming. There will be an email sent out in April 2010 to ask every member of Ahavat Torah Congregation to offer their ideas, favorite quotes, and preferred suggestions on how to have mindful and harm-preventing conversations (with family members, friends, colleagues, and congregants).
Then in June 2010 we will compile these ideas, suggestions, warnings, concerns, and quotes into a booklet that will be more like the Talmud (with opposing and diverse views presented together on the same page creating much food-for-thought) rather than a one-size-fits-all rule book.
This booklet of 20-60 pages will be the first grass-roots, congregation-generated, "bipartisan" guidebook on compassionate speech. Each person who participates by emailing or calling in a comment can either put their own name next to their suggestions and ideas, or they can have anonymity.
Our hope is to raise our own level of understanding and discussion of these delicate issues and at the same time to create an easy-to-read booklet that might be useful for our children, grandchildren, friends, colleagues and other Jewish communities and congregations.
Please make sure you are there on March 2nd and March 9th so that this creative process will from the start have your good ideas and your specific inputs.
IN ORDER TO KNOW THE NUMBER OF CHAIRS AND REFRESHMENTS TO HAVE READY, PLEASE R.S.V.P. AS SOON AS POSSIBLE TO 310 815-1611 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thank you ahead of time for bringing your wisdom and your insights to this important project. May it be a good thing for our congregation and for each of us in our daily lives.