Lashon ha’Ra and Metzora
Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon’s Torah Talk on Metzora-HaGadol 5779
This week we read the Torah portion of Metzora in the book of Leviticus, focusing on the question of leprosy, a dreaded disease of the ancient world. It’s true that leprosy was awful and needed to be eliminated if at all possible, in particular by using quarantines to isolate it. As recently as the 20th century lepers were often still isolated in remote colonies—the Hawaiian island of Moloka’i famously was used for just that purpose—and today it exists in a much more limited way in many countries, with about half the cases occurring in India. It is likely that the Biblical metzora or tzara’at, leprosy, was a whole category of skin diseases and deformations that were viewed as potentially even infecting clothing and houses.
Interesting, but exploring an infectious disease that our ancestors feared in Torah Study or a Sabbath service could scarcely be called a spiritually meaningful experience.
The rabbis of our tradition recognized this problem long ago and came up with an ingenious and meaningful reinterpretation: the word Metzora, was itself, they said, an abbreviation for the term in Hebrew Motzi shem ra—which means slander or evil speech. Their interpretation was based on evidence in the Torah itself: Moses’ hand became leprous when he expressed doubt about the willingness of the people to believe in his mission (Exodus 4: 6-7), while Miriam was struck by leprosy when she spoke against Moses (Numbers 12: 1-15). The leper was a person who spoke badly about others and should be shunned for doing so.
Evil speech, lashon ha’ra and its even darker partner, motzi shem ra, slander, are considered by Judaism to be among the worst sins of all. What needs to be eliminated from society is not just the biological illness of leprosy but these terrible infections of slander and gossip.
The ways in which we employ language lead to many of the worst problems in society. Lashon ha’ra, Maimonides taught, is not only a kind of terrible, epidemic disease but even a multiple murderer, killing three people: the one who shares the gossip, the one who hears the gossip, and the one who is the subject of gossip.
According to Jewish law, even gossip that has a kernel of truth within it is lashon ha’ra, and inherently wrong, and causes intense societal damage. Some authorities, such as the great rabbi known as the Chofetz Chayim, go so far as to say that even gossiping about the truth is morally heinous.
There is an interesting parallel in our own law code in the United States. There is a legal concept in Amercan jurisprudence called the “Fruit of the poisoned tree,” which rules out the use of evidence collected improperly. That is, any discovery gathered in such a way is tainted and not legally admissible. So it is with metzora, and all other forms of lashon hara, evil speech. Whether the gossip has elements of truth in it or not, it is derived from a fundamentally corrupted source. It brings poison wherever it goes.
I have personally experienced the ways that false and defamatory speech, wielded both deliberately to destroy and inadvertently by weak people, can cause tremendous damage. I have also seen motzi sheim ra, simple slander, used in an attempt to extort money and power. These sins are not restricted to lay people, of course; even some rabbis can and have engaged in these actions in our own community, and some continue to do so.
Our goal should be to completely eliminate from our lives the habit of motzi shem ra, the awful tendency we have to speak ill of others. The great rabbis teach that if you commit no slander your own life can become clean of moral illness. By purifying our speech of words that are damaging to others, we can find our way clear to living better, holier lives.
Our portion this week even delineates forms of metzora that affect the very houses in which we live, metzora’at bayit. If a house is badly enough infected with this leprosy-of-the property, it may even need to be destroyed. It’s along the lines of Abraham Lincoln’s concept that a house divided against itself cannot stand.
If we wish to have not only personal lives but organizations and synagogues and communities in which holiness can flourish, the dreadful sin of slander must be eliminated as well.
May we each do our part, now and always, to remove metzora, personal impurities of speech, from our own lives, our institutions, and our community.