“Death and life are in the power of the tongue.” (Proverbs)
In his sermon “Slander—An Unforgivable Sin”, of February 7, 1965, Rabbi Olan justifies the inclusion in the Ten Commandments of the Ninth Commandment: the prohibition against bearing false witness, implying that it is as serious as murder. Indeed, slander is a kind of killing: “The sages tell us that to talk [slanderously] about a third person kills three people; him who talks, him who hears it, and him about whom it is told.”
On the level of everyday malicious gossip, whether about neighbors or celebrities, slander is practiced by people who are “mentally and morally blind and dumb” and who are trying to fill a vacuum in their hearts.
Rabbi Olan then widens his focus to include whole nations: he reminds us how during the McCarthy era, false rumors of treason caused the destruction of careers and even suicide. He is equally critical of those who “revel in scandal” and of “the rest of us who stand quietly to listen” rather than resisting the lies that are being told about our fellow citizens.
Finally, Rabbi Olan cites the most extreme example of slander in our time, the Nazi “Big Lie” that vilified and contributed to the attempted extermination of a whole people.
Rabbi Olan could not have imagined how easy it has become to spread slander via the internet and social media. Even though there is no easy remedy, his judgment surely would be the same: “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.”
*Written by Frances Olan.*