Everyone was supposed to be open about their feelings, their issues, and their negative experiences.
The new culture insisted on validation and support for a "victim."
(This is despite the fact that "confession" - to the group or to a designated member - is one of the classic signs of a cult. For example, cults expect members to reveal fears, secrets, sins, bad attitudes, bad middot, etc. so the cult can play on these...just like secular society does today.)
Increasingly, tell-all books, both memoirs and thinly disguised autobiographical "fiction" decimated parents, ex-spouses, and friends -- and hit the best-seller lists.
You had "right" to express your feelings and talk about your experiences, even if it meant condemning other people who couldn't be there defend themselves.
Case-in-point: Many of these best-sellers were later contradicted by the people featured within (like Christina Crawford's Mommie Dearest) or by researchers (like those who researched Flora Rheta Schreiber's Sybil). Even if Christina Crawford's siblings are just in denial and covering up Joan Crawford's abusive parenting, the point is that a strenuous case can be made for seeing different angles of the same story OR that the author is the dysfunctional person and engaging in widespread character assassination.
And this extended to the personal level. Especially as a young adult, your parents impact your life so much that it’s hard to talk about yourself without referencing your upbringing and your relationship with them.
As you move into other life-stages, your spouse and his family impact your life in a way that’s all-encompassing. Then your children. And your children feel like an extension of you (which is even truer for women because her biological child was physically part of her body at one point), so maybe you talk about them as freely as you talk about yourself.
In secular society, talking freely about your family members, your spouse and his or her family members, and your children is a given.
In fact, you may be criticized for keeping mum about your problems with them, being labeled as “repressed” or “secretive” or “fearful” or “fake.”
Well-meaning people discourage you from “keeping it all in” and encourage you to “be open, be honest.” Abused (or those who feel they’ve been abused) people enthuse about how much better they feel about telling everything because holding back felt like “protecting” their abuser.
But then again, have you ever encountered situations in which the self-proclaimed victim was actually a manipulator? Or somewhat deluded and self-absorbed? Or simply a bit too subjective?
Note: If there is actual clear-cut abuse and the abuser is a danger to society, of course there is value—and sometimes a Torah obligation—to expose this information to protect others from abuse & bring the abuser to justice.
Again, many people openly discuss the flaws of their family members. They feel it’s their “right.”
And society is constantly telling them it’s not only okay, but it’s even “healthy” for them to do so.
Judaism, however, is very different.
What about Painful Situations?
So even when the lashon hara is for a beneficial purpose, it still doesn't allow for a free-for-all.
If you grew up secular with the "right" to express yourself however you feel, the laws of lashon hara demand quite an adjustment.
To their eternal credit, a great many Orthodox Jewish women have taken upon themselves to learn 1 or 2 halachot a day to keep on top of lashon hara and prevent verbal mishaps.
Yet a lot of the surrounding culture still seeps in.
When I think of how much I know about a friend’s parents, spouse, parents-in-law, or children—EVEN when I don’t know the friend so well—it gives pause for thought.
After many instances of this over the years and learning the laws of lashon hara, I started to realize that it's not good to know much of what I’ve been told. It’s not my business and there’s no toelet (practical benefit) to to it.
Several times, it also happened that I thought that I was the designated "one or two confidants" permitted (with certain strictures) by halacha, only to discover later that I was merely yet another in a long line of confidants, which included the speaker's friends, therapists, siblings or other family members, telephone hotlines, rebbetzins, contacts -- or some combination thereof.
Note: The one speaking about her problems was never manipulative as far as I could tell. She didn't intend to gather a long chain of confidants -- it just happened. How? In a very painful situation, people get desperate and jump from promoted solution to promoted solution. Also, continuous pain is bound to leak out at times.
Having said that, it's notable that all this outpouring and seeking never brought the speaker any relief (except very temporary relief). On the contrary, sometimes the response of a chosen confidant piled even more frustration into the equation. It certainly never produced a solution to the problematic relationship, so the pattern of seeking out new confidants continued, often for years.
So while understandable, it's rarely helpful and even damaging -- though it FEELS like the right thing to do. It feels "cleansing" and "honest" and "real." But unless performed according to halacha, it usually doesn't help and even harms. This idea will be discussed further in Part II.
On the other hand, here's a positive example...
Children are People Too
While previous experience in the secular world already impressed upon me the importance of NOT kvetching about older children, especially when they were around (including NOT indulging in the oh-so acceptable joking manner that "allows" parents to publically malign & humiliate their preteen or teenager), I was surprised that these yeshivish women rejected lashon hara regarding a much younger child too.
Initially, I felt the discomfort and defensiveness that comes when indulging in a behavior I thought was okay, but suddenly got a hint that it really wasn't.
But after mulling it over, I realized they were absolutely right.
Children have a right to grow up without being stigmatized by their parents for their innate character flaws (which we all have) or more disturbingly, being stigmatized because the parents’ character flaws prevent them from seeing their child accurately.
Openness is Not a Jewish Value
She said it proudly and gratefully (“It works! It doesn’t always work with everyone.”) Little did she know that despite having put one of my own children on the lowest dose of Ritalin for several months after a couple of years of struggling to learn to read, I don’t think it’s a good idea. I wish I’d invested in davening & cheshbon hanefesh rather than medicating the problem, and certainly as a long-term solution, research shows it’s very problematic.
But I didn’t say anything except, “Mm. I understand.” (Because I do understand—I just don’t agree. But I’m definitely sympathetic.)
Since she is a very sincere, knowledgeable, and especially refined frum lady, it was surprising that she blabbed like this. However, both secular and frum media encourage openness about mental health issues and psychotropic medication in the mistaken belief that such openness is a fantastic boon to dealing with mental health issues -- and even part of the main solution.
And this is the openness encouraged by secular society, along with the attitude encouraged by secular psychiatry which has unfortunately been promoted by English-speaking frum media for years now: "Down with stigma!"
The question is whether a mother has a right to reveal that information to others? Especially since the mother above intends it as a long-term solution, if I see that child at 15, I’m going to assume he’s still on Ritalin (or some variation thereof). And does the 10-year-old mind that his mother (who is an otherwise sincerely frum and dedicated person) just blabs that out to anyone? (A lot of 10-year-olds on Ritalin do NOT want anyone to know!)
Another mother of a sixteen-year-old mentioned that she had her son on Ritalin to keep him in yeshivah. Yet my son, who was friends with him, said that the sixteen-year-old doesn’t want ANYONE to know, it’s a big secret, and I need to make sure I never let out a peep about it, including never indicating to the boy in any way that I know.
Is that okay?
While we needn’t pretend our lives or our family members are perfect, halacha still demands circumspection regarding what we say about them.
The Basic Halacha of Lashon Hara
- The speaker
- The listener
- The one being spoken about
And the basic halacha of lashon hara is this:
If I, the speaker, think negatively of what I’m saying about someone, it’s forbidden. (It’s forbidden even if the listener feels positively about it and the subject of the speech doesn’t mind.)
Example: Let’s say I think vegetarians are ridiculous. The listener thinks vegetarianism is fine. The vegetarian of whom I’m speaking is fine with everyone knowing he’s a vegetarian. But because I mean it in a derogatory way, it’s lashon hara.
If you, the listener, think negatively of what I’m saying about someone, it’s forbidden. (It’s forbidden even if the speaker feels positively about it and the subject of the speech doesn’t mind.)
Example: Let’s say I think vegetarians are admirable. The listener thinks vegetarianism is for dummies. The vegetarian of whom I’m speaking is fine with everyone knowing he’s a vegetarian. But because the listener hears it in a derogatory way, it’s lashon hara.
If the person being spoken about doesn’t want other people to know OR doesn’t want people to talk about that facet of them, it’s forbidden. (It’s forbidden even if both the speaker and the listener feel positively about it.)
Example: Let’s say both I and the listener think vegetarians are admirable. But the vegetarian of whom I’m speaking prefers to keep his vegetarianism a secret; he feels private about it and doesn’t want it known or spoken of. So even though you and I speak of him in a positive way, it’s still lashon hara.
As you can see, it can get a bit complicated.
While reading through the above, you may already be conjuring up situations that lead you to say, “But what about this? And what about that?”
That’s when you need to ask a lashon hara expert.
Also, the above shows how easy it is to stumble into lashon hara, particularly if both you and the listener feel positively about the subject, even though the subject doesn’t want it known or talked about OR if both you and the subject feel positively and you didn’t realize that the listener feels negatively.
This is why many people advise against talking about other people at all. It’s so easy for even a well-meaning & careful speaker to stumble in this area.
Then I read the Pele Yoetz talking about problems with close family members and believe me, it was quite a knock upside the head coming from secular society.