Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Chofetz Chaim and Proper Speech

I recently started studying Chofetz Chaim with a friend, my second reading of the text, and realized there is no comparable secular framework, that I am aware of, for such comprehensive mindfulness of speech and thought. Indeed, the trend these days is to express one's thoughts in words with the least hesitation and forethought, and only then to deal with the repercussions. If one were to strip the text of its Jewish focus, it may remove some pillars of support, but preserve much good spiritual philosophy for the general public. Perhaps I'll write some of the thoughts that cross my mind on the subject of loshon hora - evil speech, ("gossip", roughly) - as we go through the text. In the meantime, here is a related story.

I once learned of two people speaking about me without my knowledge. I am generally quite oblivious to such machinations, particularly within the community, as I tend not to pry into peoples lives and expect reciprocation. Unfortunately, this sometimes generates unintended consequences, as some individuals, left to their own devices, will fill a void with shocking obscenities I could never have contemplated. In this particular case, I was informed through a bystander that rose in my defense, and who felt I should know, in order that I correct the record.

I did not think much of it, and was quite predisposed to ignore the issue, until much later, after the matter had stewed in my mind. The actual accusations were easy enough to refute, trivial even, and I had no great urge to challenge them - misdirection and ambiguity can have its advantages. What eventually triggered my anger was the context - the who and the why of what transpired. These were no boors, no simpletons; nor was their discussion aimed at achieving some positive outcome. This was a case of conduct unbecoming, and that, as a fellow Jew, I felt I should somehow address.

A confrontation was out of the question as it could further strain relationships - an outcome I preferred to avoid. I let the matter rest as I considered a proper response. Mediation through an intermediary? That would only raise the volume and embroil innocent people in the ugly business. An anonymous, non-specific warning, then? But what could I write to reach the individuals involved, to relate my genuine disappointment in their actions, without raising their defenses and reducing the entire exercise to counterproductive futility?

Aha! But what if I left the writing to a professional, a philosopher, a spiritual and halachic master in the ways of proper speech and more - the Chofetz Chaim! A surreptitiously mailed book bearing his name - Sefer Chofetz Chaim - would deliver a private, yet powerful message. It would be the spiritual equivalent of receiving an authoritative guide to sexually transmitted disease, with a pack of condoms, anonymously and out of the blue. There you are, living out your life, and "bam" - to quote a friend - someone felt it necessary to address your unwise sexual promiscuity, in a way that leaves no room for doubt that the matter has become known, while recognizing the embarrassing nature of the issue and leaving you to address it of your own initiative, if you so choose. Could a solution be more perfect?

Still, there was the matter of humiliating the parties involved, even if discretely and unintentionally. Perhaps they had been coarse to my feelings, but they could be counted on to peak in sensitivity when the matter became an affront to theirs. Who was I, after all, to be dispensing justice by the sharp edge of Chofetz Chaim's sword? If I truly cared about the people involved, and not avenging my pride, then perhaps I should swallow what had transpired and end the bitter cycle. Alternatively, perhaps it was my place to warn and educate the parties involved, so that they could address a serious problem. The small push my anonymous message could provide may be just the incentive needed to make a positive change. I resolved to wait until my feelings on the matter had dissipated, and I could approach the issue with the dispassion and detachment it deserved.

As things turned out, the matter soon receded from my thoughts. Some months later, the parties to the conversation which had so riled me learned the very truth which they had once mischaracterized, without my involvement and in a positive way which left no one the lesser. Looking back, however, the crucial question remains - was this experience a missed opportunity for helping to correct another person's misbehavior, or a study in self-restraint?

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