The Danger of Slander and the Power of Remorse

This week’s Torah portion, Metzorah, and last week’s, Tazriah, are the two Torah portions B’ney Mitzvah kids dread. The portions are all about a disease (tzara’at) that can erupt on the skin and also appear as mold on the walls of a house. The word tzra’at is often translated as “leprosy”. Since the disease can also effect something inanimate like the walls of a home and the individual stones that form those walls, it’s probably not leprosy but whatever it was, it was truly frightening for our ancestors. The ancient Jewish community reacted with understandable caution, quarantining the person or the home. If the afflicted person didn’t heal s/he was permanently separated from the community. If the home didn’t “heal” it was destroyed.

Since Miriam was similarly stricken with a skin disease when she publicly denounced her brother, Moses (in a racist outburst that demeaned him and his Kushite wife, Tziporah, who was an African), the rabbis interpreted the disease in focus in these two Torah portions to be punishment to a person who slanders or gossips about others. Rabbinic tradition considers slander to be tantamount to murder because it “murders” the victim’s reputation and, like murder, slander can never be undone (because it is impossible to stop slander from spreading once it has been instigated).

Rumors, gossip, slander and hostile opinions are even more uncontrolled in our day because they are often spread via social media or the news media. Many prominent figures and all too many “regular” folk, feel an amazing liberty with their words when a video camera is present or when they write on Facebook, Twitter, etc., and whether the words are true or not, the anger and bitterness is forwarded on to countless others. When perpetrators of slander are “caught” or pressured to “retract” their statements, THEY now receive the full wrath of society and we consider them forever tainted despite any sincere remorse they may offer. Of course, we rarely, if ever, look back at our own emails and texts to see in what rumor, slander and gossip WE have participated.

The Torah portions Tazriah and Metzorah offer no sympathy or empathy for those who personally break out or whose homes break out in tzara’at. There is, of course, a method of returning them back into society or declaring their homes to be pure, but those ceremonies have nothing to do with an individual’s remorse or the community’s acceptance of that remorse, and these portions also say nothing of those who might be suffering through no fault of their own but who simply fell victim to a skin disease or mold on their homes and are assumed to be slanderers.

Remorse and reconciliation seem to be dying arts in the age of the internet. We should revive them. Remorse and reconciliation enable us not only to fully consider another person’s humanity, but also our own. Seeing others through our own fallibilities could create a better, more civil society in actual or digital word because it would, hopefully, force the perpetrators of vicious speech to think twice about what they say and those who hear or on the virtual receiving end of such speech to refuse to participate in repeating it.