Medically speaking, tsara’at, the biblical disease usually translated as “leprosy,” has nothing to do with slander (motsi shem ra). But for our rabbinic ancestors, tsara’at was like advanced and untreatable cancer is for us. They regarded the gravest threat to bodily health as equivalent with character damage caused by the misuse of language.
That decision should take our breath away. Our culture cares little about damage we do through verbal abuse. Beyond taking care to avoid lawsuits, we engage rather freely in speaking loosely of others.
Jewish law, by contrast, is nothing short of obsessive on the subject. It delineates three kinds of verbal abuse and forbids them all: 1) Inventing or passing on lies about people (motsi shem ra). 2) Speaking negatively about people, even regarding things that happen to be true (lashon hara)! 3) Idle gossip (r’hilut), since gossip thrives on the objectionable, if not the downright sordid.
Clear distinctions emerged only in the Middle Ages, where, for instance, the two great legalists Maimonides and Nahmanides argue whether lashon hara is its own classification or just a particularly heinous case of r’hilut. Until then, rabbinic writing frequently lumps them all together as scurrilous talk that insidiously eats away at a person’s good name and thereby causes injury. The Talmud goes so far as to say that “speaking lashon hara is like denying the existence of God.”
This, mind you, is for speaking evil of others, even if the charges are true! Why is even this lesser offense equivalent to, of all things, apostasy — pretty much the worst crime against God the Jewish imagination can muster?
The Chafetz Chaim suggests an answer when he cautions against speaking lashon hara even of oneself. Prohibition of lashon hara is usually assumed to be rooted in the damage it causes. But what damage do we cause ourselves by owning up to our own negative character traits? Doesn’t Judaism demand we do just that, calling it teshuva (“repentance”)?
The Chafetz Chaim is, no doubt, thinking of people who go beyond teshuva — people who habitually run themselves down. It is this constant negativity toward oneself that is forbidden, because being overly self-critical is a slight on God, the Creator who made us.
At stake is what we call religious anthropology, our doctrine of human nature. Judaism insists on seeing something divine in each of us. In 1994, The Halo Benders released God Don’t Make No Junk, inspiring T-shirts, bumper stickers, website postings, and other forms of subtle protest against a society that teaches us that we are, overall, wanting.
We can understand the Chafetz Chaim emphasizing the earlier Jewish version of “God don’t make no junk.” It’s one thing to take honest stock of who we are; it’s another to run ourselves down all the time (even if the charges are mostly true) without simultaneously appreciating what is good, decent, and even godly within us.
This implicit denial of God’s presence in any human being, even ourselves, is indeed the subtlest of apostasies. And it is a sin.