The Public

Any matter that is said in the presence of three is not subject to the prohibition of malicious speech.
— Bava Batra 39b

"Three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead," quipped Benjamin Franklin in Poor Richard's Almanac. This seems to be a reasonable explanation of the Talmudic aphorism above, otherwise stated as two's company; three's a crowd. Rabba bar Huna, who issued this statement is not granting permission for three people in each other's company to say something malicious. What he is saying is that when something malicious is said in the presence of three, it is assumed to have already gone public. What, one wonders, would Rabba bar Huna have thought of Facebook?

This assumes that when people speak lashon ha-ra - malicious gossip about others, even if it is true - that the prohibition is not only about content but also about crowd. Two people whisper; three can easily turn into dozens. As one can imagine, there was some rabbinic discomfort with this idea. A medieval Talmud commentator, Rabbeinu Yona, suggests that this is only the case where what one says can be understood in more than one way, with one interpretation that is positive and one negative. Being good-spirited, we assume that the speaker only meant it positively, while others may have heard it differently. Rabbeinu Yona also suggests that this refers to a conversation about someone who has sinned and will not hear rebuke as a way to figure out how to exert communal pressure to help him improve. The explanation that makes the most sense to me is that this is less about the speaker and more about the listener. The listener should assume that what is being said in a group of three is public knowledge. In other words, be wary when you say something to more than one person. News like this will travel fast.

One of the most fascinating and disturbing challenges of social media is that those who use these platforms to diminish others rarely understand the impact of what they are communicating precisely because there is no public at the moment of writing. Alone with a laptop, the writer never comes face-to-face with the "victim" or even face-to-face with a bystander who might raise an eyebrow, shake a head or indicate that a boundary has been crossed. Cyber-bullying has caused no end of deep emotional pain. Alone without a public in which to receive the immediate feedback of body language, the writer can work his or her way into a frenzy of indignation with immense psychic costs to others. It is not only mean. It is cowardly.

Contrast this with a wonderful passage of the Talmud where two scholars debate the problem and parameters of slander (BT Erkhin 15b-16a):

Rabba said: Whatever is said in the presence of the person concerned is not considered lashon ha-ra.
 Abaye countered: All the more so; it is rude as well as lashon hara!
Rabba replied: I hold with Rabbi Yossi who asserted, "I never said anything about a person that would make me look back to see if that person were standing behind me.

How many of us can make Rabbi Yossi's assertion that we never said anything about a person that would cause us to look both ways to check if he or she was present. This is a high standard of ethical conduct, indeed. Personally, I am always in someone else's office when a colleague says, "Shut the door." Worse, I am aware of the times I have made the same request. When we request a shut-the-door conversation it is because we do not want the public to hear, but it is here when the public may actually save us from shaming or besmirching another. Think about this the next time you shut that door.

In Words that Help, Words that Heal, R. Joseph Telushkin writes:

Every year, tens of thousands of families are split asunder and close friendships are broken because contending parties refuse to fight fairly. In a dispute with someone, you have the right to state your case, express your opinion, explain why you think the other party is wrong, even make clear how passionately you feel about the subject at hand. But these are the only rights you have. You do not have the moral right to undercut your adversary's position by invalidating him or her personally...Words have consequences, and if you use them to hurt people, your victims will find ways to hurt you in return.

We stop this cycle not by refraining from gossip but by loving life more, as we read in Psalms 34:13-14: "Who is eager for life, who desires years of goodness? Guard your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking deceit." If negative speech makes us negative, then positive speech helps us not only live our humanity, it also helps us love our own lives more. And that's the best kind of public.

Shabbat Shalom