In 1873, my great-great-great grandfather, Rabbi Yisroel Meir Kagan, wrote a book on the biblical laws prohibiting lashon hara—gossip and slander. The book was called Chofetz Chaim, “Seeker of Life,” and his followers started calling its author by the same name. When I first learned about the Chofetz Chaim, I thought his opposition to gossip made sense; after all, nobody likes to be talked about behind their back.
But growing up, I realized that in day-today life, people rarely characterize remarks made by men as gossip. And then I wondered, is gossip just a derogatory term for women’s speech? And are prohibitions against gossip just another way to silence women?
In the Chofetz Chaim’s Orthodox, Eastern European world, women did not study Talmud in yeshiva; and they were excluded from political activity. So women talked about work, family, and the ins and outs of everyday life. In other words, when and where women could not talk about ideas, they talked about people: a topic of conversation that the rabbis termed gossip.
On an individual level, gossip keeps us safe. When I was a sophomore in college, an acquaintance of mine saw me leave a party with a male classmate whom I had just met. That acquaintance texted a mutual friend that he was worried about me; the mutual friend, in turn, texted me, “I lived on the same freshman hall as Dave [not his real name], and a couple of women on our hall told me that he’s pretty bad about consent.” When I received her text, just before I got to Dave’s dorm, I told Dave that I was tired, turned around, and left.
Moreover, women do not gossip just in order to help each other avoid violent situations; we also gossip in order to combat oppressive leaders and institutions. For instance, in 2010, the Shulamith School for Girls in Brooklyn suspended pay for 80 (mostly female) teachers and other employees for eight months. During this time, teachers lost their health care benefits and pensions, and many struggled to pay for rent, tuition, mortgage payments, and medical necessities. When the school neglected to pay back-wages, the teachers tried to resolve the issue by talking directly with the administration. Twenty-nine of the teachers joined a legal challenge that they kept out of the public eye.
After six years of private fights, when the school administration rejected a settlement agreement, the teachers realized that they could not convince the school to pay back their stolen wages through direct negotiations alone. So, in August 2016, they told their story to the press. A little over a month later, the school finally agreed to a settlement.
Authority figures try to silence gossip because they know how powerful it can be. So it’s on us to fight back: to continue to talk about injustice, to build relationships with one another, to keep each other safe, and to organize together. It’s on us to defend each other’s rights to speak when those who speak out about injustice come under attack. We must keep “gossiping” in order to create a more just world.
RACHEL SANDALOW-ASH on the Lilith Blog.