Most of this Sabbath’s Torah reading (Leviticus 14 and 15), like the one that preceded it, is devoted to the complex laws governing the dermatological affliction usually rendered as “leprosy.” While there are no Jews who observe these rules today, traditional interpretation—based on Numbers 12—understands the ailment as a punishment for gossip. Rabbi David Wolpe offers three “truths” that stem from the strict talmudic injunction against speaking ill of one’s fellow:
The first thing to remember is that, strangely, we gossip about those we love more than about those whom we dislike. When we gossip about those we dislike, it is clear what we are doing. We come off as a little spiteful and vindictive. When we say: “This guy doesn’t leave a tip for the waiter—he’s so cheap!” if the listener knows you already dislike him, the exchange takes on an unsavory cast.
But when you like someone, you immunize yourself to gossip. “Listen, I love this guy—we are best friends. But I must admit, I can’t get the guy to leave a tip.” Now you have effectively gossiped without looking like a jerk. Beware the Teflon gossip. If you come out of it looking good, that makes it worse, not better.
Second, we gossip for status. That is why employees gossip about their bosses, but bosses almost never gossip about their employees. We gossip about those with the same status as us or higher status—famous people, rich people. It’s about taking others down and elevating ourselves thereby. They aren’t so great, and moreover, we are in the know, in the magic circle of those aware that this guy is cheating on his wife. Knowledge is status and sharing it improves one’s stature.
Finally, gossip requires two. . . . It is socially uncomfortable to say to someone you don’t wish to hear this or that. But such everyday acts of emotional courage are gymnastics of the soul. It is how we build the muscles of bravery in the face of a world that would always compromise us.