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Title page for ETD etd-11142011-185139

Type of Document Dissertation
Author Bernsen , Charles Jay
URN etd-11142011-185139
Title Lashon Ha-ra (the Evil Tongue) and the Problem of Jewish Unity
Degree PhD
Department Religion
Advisory Committee
Advisor Name Title
Dr. Shaul Kelner Committee Chair
Dr. Jay Geller Committee Member
Dr. Martina Urban Committee Member
Dr. Philip Ackerman-Lieberman Committee Member
Dr. Richard McGregory Committee Member
  • amitekha
  • chaver
  • slander
  • gossip
Date of Defense 2011-11-03
Availability unrestricted



Dissertation under the direction of Professor Shaul Kelner

The premise of this project is that the ancient rabbinic prohibition against lashon hara — the sin of speaking badly about another Jew — is more than an ethical concept governing interpersonal relations. Because it has implications for discourse aimed at excluding or marginalizing social deviance and independence, the prohibition against lashon ha-ra mediates the tension inherent in the question of how much difference and autonomy can be tolerated within Jewish society. Part I examines contested notions of lashon ha-ra in early rabbinic texts. It identifies two main traditions — one that is quite restrictive of demeaning or harmful speech and another that is more tolerant of it. The former was more prevalent among rabbis who were socially or politically vulnerable. The latter was more prevalent among rabbis who were more powerful and felt relatively more secure. Part II looks at how this tension plays out in Sefer Chafetz Chaim, the nineteenth-century legal code and commentary on lashon ha-ra by Lithuanian Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan. Like the early rabbis who emphasized the danger of lashon hara, Kagan was responding to the presence of polemical discourse that he viewed as a profound threat to Jewish social cohesion. But also like the early rabbis there were limits to his concern. Although his primary aim was to suppress rhetoric that was alienating Jews from each other, he nevertheless permitted and even encouraged it for certain pragmatic, ethical and ideological purposes. I argue that in regard to delimiting Jewish collective identity, Kagan responded pragmatically to the forces of religious divergence at work among traditional Lithuanian Jews while at the same time emphatically rejecting the ideology of the Jewish enlightenment that challenged the primacy of traditional texts and the authority of rabbis to interpret them.

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