The Haredi #MeToo and the Dangers of Not Gossiping
By Kirsten Porter, Guest Blogger
This week’s guest blogger brings us an intriguing dispatch from the world of Jewish thought on how necessary gossip can be under the right circumstances. I hope you enjoy it. This relates to a previous piece I wrote, which you can find here. Cheers, DS Leiter
Written in 1873 by Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, the Chofetz Chaim is a magisterial multi-volume work on the various religious prohibitions against gossiping (lashon hara in Hebrew) in the Jewish tradition. Yes, the whole thing. Just about gossip. Sounds thrilling, no?
I never really wanted to read the Chofetz Chaim. Relatable, I know.
Nevertheless, an entire culture has popped up around this book in the 150 years since its publication. There are annotated editions, pocket editions, abbreviated editions, page-a-day editions. There are Facebook groups, social clubs, and international study networks dedicated exclusively to this single book on this single issue.
Gossiping in the World of Jewish Thought
For an issue which is mentioned exactly one time in the Torah, gossip has an outsized place in the world of Jewish thought. The original prohibition against gossip is derived from Leviticus 19:16: “Do not go about as a tale-bearer amongst your people.”
Or, maybe that’s what it says. No one’s actually completely sure.
The actual verse reads, in the Hebrew, “lo-telekh rekhil b’amekha,” which appears to be an ancient colloquialism the meaning of which has been completely lost to history. Some people have argued that it’s an ancient misprint, and the actual words must be something else entirely. The modern JPS translation takes it in an entirely different direction, and favors a much more generic, “do not profit baselessly off your people.”
Nevertheless, Tthe rabbinic interpreters throughout history have been fascinated by the dangers of gossip. The very earliest commentators on the Torah link the sin of gossip to the affliction of leprosy (tzaraat in Hebrew), due to an incident where the prophetess Miriam speaks ill of her sister-in-law and is immediately struck with leprosy. The Talmud also attributes the sin of the spies, who spoke so falsely of the Promised Land, to fundamentally an issue of gossip.
And while the Torah doesn’t speak about gossip much, or maybe even at all, it spends a lot of time on leprosy. So for virtually all of rabbinic Jewish history, the rabbis have interpreted the laws against incurring leprosy to be really just code for laws against speaking gossip.
Kids Speak (But Not Too Much)
Chaim Walder isn’t well-known to the world at large, which all things considered, is probably for the best.
Walder was a beloved author of children’s books for the ultra-religious Haredi community, originally writing in Hebrew for his local community of B’nai Brak but eventually translated into eight languages and distributed around the world. Walder was a grade school teacher, who began writing short fiction in the voices of the children in his class in order to encourage empathy and help children think about perspectives other than their own.
These stories eventually became a six-volume series called Kids Speak, which were collections of first-person stories Walder claimed were drawn directly from his own students. The first volume is one of the top five bestsellers in Israeli history, across all genres.
A Heartwarming Author Etc???
As he became more of a household name in the Orthodox Jewish community, Walder revolutionized the Haredi world by founding the first-ever therapeutic summer camp for children, and eventually being appointed the head of the Center for Child and Family, where he became a certified counselor and began seeing patients.
He was a champion of the arts, holding writing workshops for children and even mentoring many of them in his home or at the bookstore he owned. He was frequently credited with revolutionizing the world of Orthodox children’s literature, which previously had been very didactic and moralizing, by openly talking about children’s feelings and motivations with compassion and insight.
By his own estimate, he maintained some degree of correspondence with over 30,000 children worldwide.
If Only–Instead, the Haredi #MeToo
But this isn’t an article about heartwarming children’s literature, and I’m sure you’ve already figured out that this story does not have a happy ending.
In November 2021, the Israeli newspaper HaAretz published an article with testimonies from three different women who said that Walder had repeatedly molested them, starting when they were as young as 12 years old.
Over the next few weeks, no fewer than 22 victims, of all genders, came forward. Some were long since grown; some were still children.
Some had gone to the authorities, while others claimed to have been bribed by the Walder family to stay silent.
They shared their stories with newspapers, religious leaders, and police. Each of them told stories of sustained, long-term abuse throughout Walder’s 30 year career.
After a month of new stories appearing relentlessly in the press, the beit din, or religious court, of Tzfat summoned Walder to face his victims and hear their accusations. Rather than accept accountability for his crimes, Walder chose the coward’s way out, and took his life in December 2021. May his name and memory be wiped out.
Eulogizing The Dead
The day after Chaim Walder died, after over a month of accusations by dozens of witnesses, this was the obituary which appeared in the ultra-religious press:
“Sad news: the renowned author and famed educator Rabbi Chaim Walder of blessed memory has passed away at the age of 53. Walder wrote over 80 books for adults and children and founded the ‘Children Talk About Themselves’ network of summer camps. We will update you with the time of his funeral.”
Rabbis and politicians spoke at length about what a contribution this man had made to society, and quoted his books lovingly to show what a great talent the world had lost.
Wait–Speaking Up About Abuse as Gossip???
Some rabbis were even more direct, and said that the Jewish community bore the weight of Walder’s murder, since the persistent gossip which surrounded his final days had clearly driven him to suicide.
Within a week of Walder’s death, one of his accusers also took her own life at age 24. Shortly prior to her death, she had confided that she could no longer bear to hear her abuser eulogized daily in the press.
The backlash was fierce. Major Jewish bookstores destroyed their stock of Walder’s books and announced that they would no longer sell them. Massive bonfires of his books, mostly gathered from people’s private collections, were organized by his graveside.
A particularly powerful flyer was distributed en masse in Haredi neighborhoods, featuring a little girl with her mouth being covered by an adult man, and the common Israeli catchphrase, “Lashon hara lo m’daber alai” – “Gossip doesn’t speak to me.” More victims came forward, accusing other prominent members of the religious community, many of whom had themselves spoken up in defense of Walder, both before and after his death.
In response to this grassroots movement, called “the Haredi #MeToo” in the Jewish press, Walder’s defenders brought their arguments right back around to…you guessed it. The Chofetz Chaim.
A Brief Interlude About Bullying–And (You Guessed It) Gossip
I wasn’t a popular kid. You’ll probably be surprised to learn that I was a massive nerd with a tendency to ramble on about my special interests. (I’m joking; no one who’s read any of my writing could possibly miss the fact that I am a massive nerd.)
I’ve had my fair share of bullies, but there was a particularly virulent one in junior high school. She was the kind of bully who was never content to be ignored, but instead followed me around, abusing me in a tone just quiet enough that the adults couldn’t hear.
One particularly bad day, she locked me in the bathroom for being fat. She guarded the door, and told anyone who would listen a gruesome tale of horrific indigestion that she was heroically helping me with.
It was almost half an hour before she lost interest and I was able to escape. Not the worst thing that’s ever happened to a kid – heck, it’s not even the worst thing that’s ever happened to me. But at the time, I was furious and powerless and desperate to see her suffer some kind of consequence.
“Telling Tales” on Bullies???
So, I did what every child knows you’re supposed to do: I went to my parents, told them the whole story, and concluded with what I thought was an absolute clincher: “I think she’s a bully. She is bullying me.”
For a moment, I was sure that the look of disgust on my father’s face meant that I had won. Surely he would call someone, tell someone what she had done to me, demand justice on my behalf.
Then, he spoke, and I will never forget what he said:
“I’m very disappointed in you. I’ve never met this poor little girl, and here you are telling me all these terrible stories about her. If I didn’t know better, I’d have a very poor opinion of her, all because of your gossiping about her. I don’t ever want to hear you speaking like this again.”
Not Even If It’s True? Sighhhh.
I admit, I didn’t learn my lesson immediately. I kept testing the waters throughout the years, trying different approaches and phrasing and rhetorical tricks to convince my father that this time, I was really truly justified in speaking up for myself.
It never worked.
The message was exactly the same every single time: never, under any circumstances, say anything that might affect someone’s reputation. Not even if it’s true.
Eventually, I stopped talking about it altogether.
When I lived through my own experience of sexual violence, it took me almost three years to even mention it, much less describe what had happened to me.
I quickly found that within my religious communities, the reaction was much the same as my father’s: how dare you try to ruin your poor assaulter’s reputation? It took stepping outside the community I’d been raised in to find a sympathetic ear, and once I started talking about it, it was like a faucet I couldn’t turn off.
Jewish Thought about Gossip–More than Meets the Eye
As I said before, I never really wanted to read the Chofetz Chaim. Mostly because, by the time I was old enough to attempt it, I felt that I’d heard enough about gossip to satisfy me for the rest of my life.
And to be sure, there is a lot of anti-gossip messaging in the Jewish community. Some, I think, is well-intentioned if a little disingenuous.
I suspect that much more of it is intentionally spread by people who themselves do not wish to be the subject of gossip. I think of figures like Rabbi Tzvi Tau, who defended Chaim Walder only to become the subject of his own police investigation for chillingly similar crimes. I think of people I’ve known in my own life who pushed the anti-gossip narrative, and of the things I learned about them later.
But there is a thin thread, often ignored, running through Judaism’s most authoritative sources which leads us down a different path. A story is told in the Talmud, a throwaway line, barely even there, about a Galilean man who was accused of murder. He went to the great Rabbi Tarfon and begged him for help. But Tarfon replied that he could not help him, because one must always consider the harmful effects of one’s actions, and he could not risk helping a murderer. In the end, the Galilean is forced to flee.
Your Neighbor’s Blood
I quoted Leviticus 19:16 to you earlier, but I admit I was a little dishonest about it. The quote I gave you is only half the story. Leviticus 19:16 concludes: “Do not stand idly by your neighbor’s blood.”
Going back as far as the eleventh century, Judaism’s most authoritative voices have read this verse as a single sentence, two sides of the same coin. Do not spread gossip among your people, but do not stand by when harm is being committed.
Maimonides takes it a step further, in his Mishneh Torah: if you are concerned that your neighbor may come to harm at someone else’s hands, a failure to speak up renders you just as liable for that harm as the one who committed it.
Morally Obligated to Gossip!
Turns out, I should have trusted the Chofetz Chaim. Turns out, there’s an entire section of his book dedicated to the circumstances under which you are morally obligated to gossip. It’s surprisingly modern for a book written before Freud was even born.
It lists emotional suffering as a legitimate reason, nay, an obligation to relieve one’s own suffering by gossiping.
If the slightest degree of suffering, either your own or that of others, can be reduced by your speaking out, you must do it, or risk violating the even more severe commandment, “do not stand idly by.”
Sigh–All the Victim-Blaming, Still
Somehow, the prohibitions on gossip touted by the mainstream never seem to apply when it comes to accusing victims of being liars, out to smear the flawless reputation of their abusers. Of all the rabbis who defended Walder, not a single one brought up the same talking points when his victim also committed suicide. Surely gossipers bear the weight of both deaths, if they bear either? But it never works that way.
We Must Do What We Can
Fortunately for victims, words can both hurt and heal. And sometimes, words are all we have at our disposal.
When justice is absent everywhere else, we are obligated to speak the truth so that the abuser will find justice at our hands.
When speaking the truth is a path to healing, we are obligated to heal.
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