Rumor Has It

Local gossip lasts for a day and a half.
— BT Moed Katan 18b

First things first. How's your 30-day Elul challenge going? Let's put another challenge out there: 30 days gossip-free.

The English singer Adele has a great song called "Rumor Has It." It's an expression we recognize that takes out the human element. We're not spreading rumors. Rumors do their own work, as Adele's lyrics suggest:

 All of these words whispered in my ear,

Tell a story that I cannot bear to hear,

Just 'cause I said it, don't mean that I meant it,

Just 'cause you heard it...

 Words whispered in her ear remind me of one of my oft-quoted saying from Proverbs. It captures the danger of rumors best: "Words of gossip are like delicious morsels; they go down to the inmost parts." (18:8). Gossip is delicious but a moment on the lips is forever on the hips in a different way. That piece of malicious or maligning information goes "down to the inmost parts." We cannot erase what we know. We will think of that gossip virtually every time we look at or encounter a person when we know his or her secret failing or weakness. 

Another problem with gossip is that the person spreading the rumor does not take accountability for it; he or she may just be passing it along. What's the harm in that? Just because someone said it or you heard it, does not give the statement authenticity. Then what does a rumor accomplish if it may not be true?

A rumor is like a dab of glue that joins people together in secret knowledge that bestows false power over its "victims." Rumors travel quickly and spread so far that they may become impossible to stop or contain. Thus are we warned in Leviticus about not being a talebearer, which literally in the Hebrew is rendered as someone who travels with gossip. Some people love to be in the know; it's a form of control. They love passing on news about people. "Did you hear...?" They don't want to know that you already heard. They want to be the one to tell you. In Jewish law, gossip does not need to be false to be gossip. It can be true and still be mean-spirited and thoughtless.

The Talmud considers what stops rumors and what spreads rumors and concludes that rumors stop if they are disproven. They gain fuel if no one puts an end to them. When I came across the Talmudic statement above - "Local gossip lasts for a day and a half" - I laughed out loud. The sages actually thought about how long rumors circulate.They concluded that a day and a half is "referring to a rumor that stopped." In their observation of group dynamics, some kind of community self-monitoring takes place that quells a rumor and kills it. 

How seriously should you take a rumor, therefore? "A rumor that does not stop must be taken seriously only if a person has no enemies. But if he has enemies, then it was the enemies who disseminated the rumor." In other words, the Talmudic conclusion is that we do pay attention to rumors that do not stop because at heart we assume that good and honest people who live in community with each other will behave with decency and stop unwarranted gossip. If it persists, we need to investigate the truth of the matter. But if the person who is the subject of the rumor has enemies, we dismiss the rumor altogether. Why be part of someone else's negative agenda?

While it would be wonderful to believe that we are high-minded enough to focus on ideas and not on people, we know the powerful draw of rumors, the delicious morsel that is fed into our ears and goes down to our inmost parts and lodges there. That morsel can quickly turn into indigestion. To avoid what we'll call "irritable scowl syndrome" - a general bad feeling about humanity that lives in the gut - we need to make sure that we don't take joy in passing on rumors and certainly think twice before spreading them without investigating their accuracy, as the Bible reminds us: "Do what is just and right."

Shabbat Shalom