a contemplation for the day

“Only a single person was created in the beginning to teach that if any individual causes a single person to perish, Scripture considers it as though an entire world has been destroyed, and if anyone saves a single person, Scripture considers it as though a whole world had been saved.” — Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5

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lashon ha-ra (gossip): a Hasidic parable

“Lashon ha-ra” literally means “bad tongue,” ie gossip. Buddhism views it quite seriously as an infringement of harmful speech, but I especially love this Hasidic story used to illustrate it in Joseph Telushkin’s Jewish Literacy. Here’s the first part of the entry:

The biblical commandment forbidding gossip is probably the most widely disobeyed of the 613 laws of the Torah. Leviticus 19:16 teaches: “Do not go about as a talebearer among your people.” This basic principle forbids saying anything negative about another person, even if it is true, unless the person to whom one is speaking or writing has a legitimate need for this information (for example, in submitting a reference for a job applicant).

In the Talmud, the rabbis greatly elaborated on this biblical verse, arguing that destroying another’s name is akin to murder (Arakhin 15b), and like murder, the deed is irrevocable. The impossibility of undoing the damage done by harmful gossip is underscored in a Hasidic tale about a man who went through his community slandering the rabbi. One day, feeling remorseful, he begged the rabbi for forgiveness, and indicated that he was willing to undergo any penance to make amends. The rabbi told him to take several feather pillows, cut them open, and scatter the feathers to the winds. The man did so, and returned to notify the rabbi that he had fulfilled his request. He was then told, “Now go and gather all the feathers.”

The man protested. “But that’s impossible.”

“Of course it is. And though you may sincerely regret the evil you have done and truly desire to correct it, it is as impossible to repair the damage done by your words as it will be to recover the feathers.”

Sartre on anti-Semitism

Have been reading Sartre’s Anti-Semite and Jew: An Exploration of the Etiology of Hate. Quite brilliant, with a number of very insightful passages. Still digesting it, but appreciating having to think through the dimension of class that he brings in.

Another interesting contribution is the film The Believer, which really … packs a punch. The (Jewish) filmmakers held nothing back in trying to reach the deepest level of pathology that is going on, and a lot of viewers were offended by this. But I think it’s a necessary thing to try and do. One scene stands out for me in this regard: Ryan Gosling (who is amazing in this) in a cafĂ© with the New York Times reporter, laying out his philosophy. (His character is based upon a real person, a Jewish anti-Semite who became something of a terrorist.) Where Sartre focuses (at least so far, I’m only halfway through) on psychological processes of resentment and scapegoating, that scene takes the film perhaps even deeper, into “blood” and the body and sexuality–the Jew as culturally “effeminizing” force par excellence.

I find contemporary anti-Semitism quite terrifying in its paranoia and hysteria. “Anti-Semitism” isn’t actually a good word for it both because, of course, the Arab people are also Semitic, and because “anti” is far too mild a term to describe the literally deranged rantings one comes across online too often. I don’t know of any phenomenon quite like it. All the more reason that we descend as far as we can, and dare, to try and understand the swamps of confusion and fear out of which it arises.