A brilliant conversationalist is one who talks to others about their interests. A bore is one who talks to others about himself and a yenta is one who talks about others to anyone.
The doleful yenta, or gossip, though not held in high regard, finds particular currency in this week's double Torah portion, Tazria and Metzora, which is concerned with contagious diseases that affect people and their homes. These portions specifically mention in great detail tsara'at, translated as leprosy.
Every commentator has attempted to find meaning in these tedious, uninspiring sections of the Bible. Virtually all of them suggest that tsara'at is not about physical disease but rather about spiritual affliction. Thus, the tradition portrays three types of this spiritual leprosy: lashon hara, the careless repeating of truthful information that is derogatory or damaging to the one being spoken of; rehilut, the malicious repeating of gossip that even if not derogatory can cause ill will or animosity; and motzei shem ra, the slanderous spreading of false, malicious, derogatory information.
An exhaustive catalogue of these behaviors was written by Philip Roth in "Operation Shylock":
It is "the whispering campaign that cannot be stopped, rumors it's impossible to quash, besmirchment from which you will never be cleansed, slanderous stories to belittle your professional qualifications, derisive reports of your business deceptions and your perverse aberrations, outraged polemics denouncing your moral failings, misdeeds, and faulty character traits — your shallowness, your vulgarity, your cowardice, your avarice, your indecency, your falseness, your selfishness, your treachery. Derogatory information. Defamatory statements. Insulting witticisms. Disparaging anecdotes. Idle mockery. Bitchy chatter. Malicious absurdities. Galling wisecracks. Fantastic lies. Lashon hara of such spectacular dimensions that it is guaranteed not only to bring on fear, distress, disease, spiritual isolation, and financial loss but to significantly shorten life. They will make a shambles of the position that you have worked nearly sixty years to achieve. No area of your life will go uncontaminated. And if you think that this is an exaggeration you really are deficient in a sense of reality."
The volume and weight of this extended comment ought to be enough to give any individual an opportunity to pause the next time either a careless or planned comment about another human being is considered. But instead, this kind of behavior, termed the "peep-show culture," is on the ascendancy in our society.
Gossip and slander have been transformed into an art form. People thrive on sensationalism and titillating stories. Such behavior invades the privacy of both public and private figures who struggle to keep ahead of the speeding paparazzi.
Science has now brought the possibilities for being a yenta to new heights. Now, not only can yentas gossip about the living, but they can also resurrect the lives of the dead by placing them under new scrutiny through DNA testing. However, there are several serious Jewish values that speak clearly to this turn of events.
First, Jewish law categorically prohibits public humiliation of another and suggests that public shame is the equivalent of murder (Baba Metzia 68b).
Second, this principle is extended from the living to the dead. Immanuel ben Shlomo, 13th century Hebrew poet who lived in Rome, warned: "De mortuis nil nisi bonum" (Do not speak ill of the dead). Clearly, the dead are not able to defend themselves.
Third, Jewish tradition has little use for careless speech or slanderous gossip about either the living or the dead. The term shmirat halashon (guard your tongue) warns against speaking ill of the dead or the living.
Leviticus 19:16 cautions the reader: "Do not go as a talebearer among your people." In short, the seemingly uninteresting portions, Tazria and Metzora, have produced an outpouring of comments and guidance best reflected in the terse statement in Psalms 34:13: "Guard your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking deceitfully."