This ranges from speaking badly about someone as a form of revenge against whatever offense they committed (real or imagined, intentional or unintentional) to the negative speech that leaks out from the overwhelming pain that results from genuine abuse and mistreatment.
In the latter situation, it seems unfeeling and even cruel to halt such an outpouring by declaring, "THAT'S lashon hara!" or "Well, I'm sure he didn't mean to do that" or "But don't you feel sorry for her?"
On the other hand, those operating within the constraints of a personality disorder feel genuinely hurt and rejected when their victims set necessary and mutually beneficial boundaries -- no matter how gently and regretfully those boundaries are set.
Such types are notorious for weeping actual tears as they pour out their wounded feelings -- feelings wounded in the course of their victims merely protecting themselves. (Nobody likes to feel that HE'S the problem in a relationship.) And so they end up defaming completely (or mostly) innocent people, something the listener is forbidden to be party to.
(In such a case, there's also the problem for the listener of chanifah, telling or allowing someone to feel that an aveira is permitted.)
So what to do?
As always, halacha comes to the rescue.
(The following has been culled from The Laws of Interpersonal Relationships: Practical Applications in Business, Home, and Society by Rabbi Avrohom Ehrman, pages 209-212. I highly recommend this book! He also offers illustrative examples, which this post doesn't.)
Why Relief-Based Lashon Hara Can Be Permissible
Yet done correctly, the lashon hara resulting from unburdening your heart to relieve emotional pain is deemed lashon hara l'toelet (a necessary and beneficial purpose).
Why is this permissible lashon hara l'toelet?
- Your intention is to relieve the burden of emotional pain & distress.
- You are seeking advice.
The first is the primary reason.
In other words: Empathy is enough of a reason; there's no obligation to also give or receive advice.
(Note: Rav Ehrman stresses that while listeners and speakers can fool themselves with regard to their underlying motivations, they can't fool Hashem. It's important to strive as much as you can to be honest about whether you truly need to unburden yourself or not, whether you're discussing your own pain or trash-talking the other person, and therefore, whether you're speaking lashon for a beneficial reason or a harmful reason.)
With the proper intention in mind (of gaining relief by unburdening one's heart of emotional pain and distress), Rav Ehrman then gives several examples in which he uses the wife as the confidant for the husband, but he stresses that the examples pertain to any close relationship, such a the husband as a confidant for his wife, or confidences between 2 close friends or between a parent and child, etc.
In fact, he emphasizes that sharing the difficulties of life is an essential component of a close relationship, sourcing the importance of doing so in the verse "V'ahavta l're'echa kamocha -- You shall love your neighbor as yourself" and verses from Yeshayahu and Tehillim: "You shall go in His Ways," implying that just as Hashem is always with a person in his troubles, so must we be with a person in his troubles.
Furthermore, Rav Ehrman states (pg. 210):
"The closer the relationship, the greater the responsibility to share in the other person's trials and tribulations. The closest relationship is between husband and wife, where the responsibility to share in each other's troubles is part of the essence of marriage."
One example from the book is:
"If you need to tell me about your troubles, I will be happy to listen to you. Remember, lashon hara for a beneficial purpose is permitted."
The Pele Yoetz also recommends that husbands confide in their wives, deriving this from the Gemara's direction to bend down to whisper with one's wife if she is much smaller than he. The Pele Yoetz considers a wife to be a husband's most loyal and empathetic confidant.
And according to Breslov philosophy, the concept of sichat chaverim means you turn to a trusted & spiritual friend for chizuk (soul-restoring encouragement).
In fact, Rav Ofer Erez even stated that there are some things for which only sichat chaverim can help. He explained you can do copious hitbodedut on certain issues, but you won't find relief or a solution until you speak about with a friend. (Frankly, with all the emphasis Breslov places on talking to Hashem, this idea shocked me. Wish I could remember where he said it...)
It seems to me that the spiritual "physics" behind this allow you to be influenced by your friend's unique good point and for your friend to be influenced by your unique good point (as Rav Bender discusses in his book, Words of Faith).
The Laws of How to Confide or Hear Confidences
So the speaker is supposed to concentrate on his or her feelings and experience, and not on the offending person's qualities.
Practically speaking, I think this means you would talk about how hurt or distressed you feel and what happened to you, and not about how awful the other person is and how much you hate him.
At the same time, the listener is still obligated to think of ways to refrain from believing any negativity cast on the subject of the lashon hara l'toelet.
This sounds very difficult to do, especially since you tend to identify strongly with someone you feel so close to, but Rav Ehrman encourages us by pointing out that "in today's perverse society, it is not difficult to find excuses for otherwise fine people who were influenced to act improperly."
Having said that, Rav Ehrman cautions the listener not to mention the positive thoughts meant to counter the negative speech if that will inflame or upset the speaker even more.
Sometimes, sharing your positive spin is extremely helpful for the suffering person and is exactly what they wanted or needed. In such a case, the person feels genuinely grateful for the new point of view.
But other times, it's extremely hurtful and damaging because it feels like the listener is siding with your abuser and even justifying the hurt or mistreatment as if it's okay to treat you like that.
So it takes real insight and genuine concern for the speaker's well-being to know how to respond.
So here are the directives for lashon hara l'toelet for emotional relief (as opposed to the protective lashon hara l'toelet mentioned in a previous post):
For The Speaker:
Permissible Intent or Reasons
- Gaining emotional relief
- Unburdening one's heart of pain, suffering, and distress
- Needs practical advice about how to best handle the situation
Forbidden Intent or Reasons
- Enjoys denigrating others
- Enjoys denigrating the person who caused the distress
- Wants to publicize the subject's flaws
- Wants to influence others to also dislike or reject the subject of the lashon hara (not for protective purposes, but simply out of spite, vengeance, or hatred)
Find a confidant who is:
- well-versed in the laws of speech
- possesses a basic fear of Heaven (yirat Shamayim)
- is trustworthy and will never repeat your confidences
- is empathetic without fanning the flames even more
- understands the role as a listener (i.e. listening only to help and/or to advise and not to add fire to the flames or gossip)
- refrains from judging negatively (though they should be insightful enough not to share that with you if you'll feel worse for it)
For The Listener
Permissible Intent or Reasons
- To contribute practical or emotional support
- To relieve the speaker's emotional burden
- To relieve the speaker's distress
- To offer advice
Forbidden Intent or Reasons
- To satisfy curiosity
- Enjoys hearing the dirt on others
- Enjoys feeling superior to others
- Can and should empathize with the speaker
- Mentally give the subject the benefit of the doubt
- Try not to believe the negative information
- In a very close relationship, you can actively invite the speaker (in a way the encourages adherence to halacha) to share negative feelings for the sake of relieving them
However, there are situations in which the leniency to invite a loved one to speak potential lashon hara is forbidden even between spouses:
- when the speaker lacks basic fear of Heaven
- when the speaker is ignorant of the basic laws of lashon hara (and will likely therefore not even attempt to hold one's speech to the minimal halachic standard because they don't know to do so)
- willfully violates the laws of lashon hara on a regular basis (i.e. "doesn't believe in it", etc.)
Note: There are also situations in which the person being spoken about is a genuinely bad person and you may be obligated to NOT give them the benefit of the doubt. Encouraging the speaker seeing such a person in a falsely positive light can be the wrong path to take. Bad people often possess nefarious motives for doing good things, and people who view the bad person's seemingly good actions as a way to "prove" the bad person's supposedly good intentions can find themselves accomplices to forbidden acts of abuse and damage and other transgressions. In such situations, a competent and discerning rabbinical expert should be consulted.
Why is This All So Hard?
And while some people are naturally more formal or contemplative with their speech, and therefore might take to the above more smoothly, others are more casual or impulsive or emotional, making the above halachot more difficult to incorporate.
For example, if you truly relate to, say, your spouse as your soul mate and best friend, how are you realistically supposed to come out with the formal invitation to speak as suggested in the book? (i.e., "If you need to tell me about your troubles, I will be happy to listen to you. Remember, lashon hara for a beneficial purpose is permitted.")
- Acknowledge that feels strange or unnatural. And then do it in your own style. You guys can laugh about it (in a way that doesn't mock the halacha) and say it in a humorous way or use whatever nusach fits you and your relationship.
Also, your initial feeling is to be uninhibited regarding your loved one's side of thing.
It's natural to feel outraged or self-righteous on behalf of your loved one.
It's natural to wholeheartedly commiserate with someone with whom you identify so strongly and feel so close to.
Yet the halacha limits this very natural and normal response to a certain extent.
Empathy and compassion are definitely permitted and even mandated, but neither participant should forget that ultimately, God is running things...including the distressing things. These challenges are measured out for our own benefit, even when it doesn't feel like it.
And let's face it...
Many halachot feel odd or unnatural until you've internalized them to some extent.
For example, many people have struggled with acclimating to:
- giving the benefit of the doubt
- aspects of tsniut (personal dignity which includes modest dress and behavior)
- aspects of taharat hamishpacha
- borer on Shabbat
- covering your hair as a married Jewish woman
- and much more
Here's true story of how well it works when the halacha is followed:
I faced the temporary falling-out with a good friend due to us growing differently and not compatibly.
During that time, neither of us even hinted to others about the falling-out, not even to our husbands. Any comments from children or husbands ("How come you two haven't gotten together for a while?" or "I haven't had to field phone calls from your friend in a long time. Did something happen?") were met with non-committal responses ("Haven't been feeling well" "Difficult to get out with a baby" "Our free time doesn't match up to call each other" "They take in Shabbos early", etc.).
When we got in sync again, the coming-together was seamless because there was no fallout. No one else had been involved in any way whatsoever.
In fact, during that time, her children continued to relate to me with the same warmth they always had even as they asked me why they hadn't seen me for a while. From this, I saw how careful their mother was being not to even hint at any friction between us.
And now we're back in sync with each other and everything really is fine.
Why? Because we both shut our mouths.
And I appreciate and admire her even more than I did before.
Well, I hope this was helpful.
Believe me, it really helped me to review this all because lashon hara l'toelet tends not to be reviewed as much as totally forbidden types of lashon hara.
For related posts, please see:
Insights into Lashon Hara about Yourself
4 Things to Know about Beneficial Lashon Hara
Friendship and Encouraging Words