By most standards, Seneca was a pretty accomplished guy. Lucius Annaeus Seneca was a Roman statesman, a Stoic philosopher, and a prolific dramatist.
Though he was one to praise “Man as a reasoning animal,” he also acknowledged “That most persons gossip.”
Who doesn’t like to gossip? We do it all the time whether we are with our family or our friends. Why even rabbis who attend the Pacific Association of Reform Rabbis conference in Palm Springs last week are known to share juicy tidbits about other people who are not seated at the same dinner table.
It is a very human characteristic to speak about other people when they are not in our presence. As Rabbi Joseph Telushkin notes in The Book of Jewish Values that “the Talmud itself concedes that virtually everyone will violate the laws of ethical speech at least once a day” (citing Baba Batra 164b-165a).
Yet the Torah wants us to strive for ethical behavior in every aspect of our lives, including how we speak. “You are not to traffic in slander among your kinspeople” is enshrined in the holiness code (Lv. 19.16). One who speaks Lashon HaRa (literally “bad tongue”) is compared to a murderer, for one is killing the reputation of another.
There is a tension between the ethical standards of our faith and our human capacity to come up short. At the first session of “Ethics in America,” we will study Jewish texts about speech and assess our capacity to live up to our tradition’s ideals.
The course begins next Wednesday night, Jan 18, at 7:30pm. Future sessions will focus on the relationship of parents and children, charitable giving, and public governance. All are welcome to attend.