Rosh HaShanah Day 1 Sermon: Paula Deen and L’Shon Ha’Rah

For the past month, members of our community, myself included, have taken the Elul Challenge.  We have worked very hard not to engage in what we call l’shon harah.  L’Shon ha’rah literally means “the evil tongue” and engaging in l’shon ha’rah means engaging in any speech and sharing any words that cause harm.  In addition to gossip and slander, l’shon ha’rah also includes sharing any information about someone, even factual and kind comments, when they are not present. 

Tomorrow morning, I encourage you to join us at services, as members of our community who have taken the Elul Challenge share their experiences with us – what worked, what didn’t work and what they gained from the Challenge.  Today, I want to share some of what I have gained from the Challenge.  I certainly struggled to keep my mouth closed and resist the urge to talk about others.  Sometimes I was successful and other times, well, I lost the Challenge – and I admit, not just because I was saying nice things about other people.  But, resisting the urge to talk about others was not the hardest part of the Challenge for me.  As someone who spends virtually every morning reading various newspapers online and listening to the news throughout the day – I struggled more with another l’shon ha’rah prohibition: the fact that we are forbidden to listen to l’shon ha’rah.  When we listen to spoken or written words that refer to another person and their actions, we give the speaker or the writer an ear.  Oftentimes, when we hear or read information, not knowing if it is accurate, we spread it.  Or, we internalize it and pass judgment on the person being spoken or written about – even if we are not aware of it.  When we do so, we add to the often damaging effects of the original words that we heard or read and become guilty of l’shon ha’rah ourselves.

By engaging with the media, I am guilty of l’shon ha’rah.  The examples I could give you are endless.  There are countless people who I have judged based upon what I have read and heard – celebrities, politicians and people accused (but not convicted) of a crime.  And while my judgments of these people might have been valid – they were based, according to the laws of l’shon ha’rah, on gossip.  Remember, even if the gossip is true – Judaism defines it as l’shon ha’rah – evil speech. 

Most of the people whom I have read or heard about in the media, I did not know personally.  I did not witness their actions – the stuff that got them in the media spotlight in the first place.  But, the media has allowed me to feel that I know it all and am capable of making a decision about who and what they are.  I am certain that many of the judgments I have made have been off base and put the “rah” – the evil – in l’shon ha’rah.

And, this is why, the Chafetz Chayim, the famous Lithuanian rabbi who lived during the turn of the 20th century teaches us:

 

The satanic evil inclination has invented a new trick to cause our brethren to sin through foolishness and to cause Godly influence to leave the world.  And this is through the reading of newspapers that have become popular in our time.  They contain foolishness, evil talk, gossip, controversy and hearsay and were this not acceptable to their readers they would not be printed…and to many Jews this has become an essential item.  It is impossible for them to have one day without a newspaper and they spend a few hours reading it.

 

What would the Chafetz Chayim have said about Facebook and Twitter!

To all of the wonderful journalists in the sanctuary today – the Chafetz Chayim goes a bit too far.  And there are rabbis who make it clear how important reputable journalism is.  I, for one, value quality reporting that allows me to understand important issues affecting us locally, nationally and globally.  Media can be beneficial and help us expand our knowledge and play a role in making our community a better place.

This being said, we do live in a world that craves controversy, conflict and, above all else, juicy gossip.  And a lot of media is right there to feed our craving, 24 hours a day on the internet, on social media and on our smart phones.  We are addicted to l’shon ha’rah.  We pounce on it.  We listen to words, write words, speak words – words that are part of a culture that can easily destroy lives – one word at a time.  And when we do take part in the destruction of someone else’s life (whether we realize we are doing this or not) – we also destroy our own life, reducing ourselves to gossipmongers and talebearers.  Judaism looks with disdain upon those who engage in l’shon ha’rah because it undermines our potential to bring good things into this world, causes unnecessary angst and hurt and keeps us from engaging in healthy, spiritually rewarding conversations and engaging with media and reading articles and books that could actually expand our minds.  L’shon ha’rah has the ability to suck the spirituality right out of our lives – making our day to day routine all about the juicy details we learn and share about others rather than strengthening our mind and spirit and building deep, meaningful relationships with family and friends.

I want to talk this morning about some of the evil talk, controversy, and hearsay that I have read in the papers and social media and heard on the news – stuff that has influenced me.  When I do this, I will be engaging in l’shon ha’rah.  I will be talking about someone when they are not here.  And, to make matters worse, I will be encouraging you to engage in l’shon ha’rah because you will be listening to me talk about someone else and encouraged to talk about them.  And, on top of this, some of you might disagree with me, which might encourage you to talk about me.

However, given that the rabbis permit l’shon ha’rah if the intention of the speaker is to improve things for the individual being spoken about and to help the listeners gain important insight, I have decided to engage in l’shon harah this Rosh HaShanah morning.  My words are intended to be instructional – but, nonetheless, I admit, they are still l’shon harah.

Over the past several months, we have all watched and many of us – myself included – have taken part in – the demise of celebrity chef Paula Deen.  Her demise began when a former employee of restaurants owned by Deen and her brother filed a lawsuit alleging racial and sexual discrimination and antisemitism.  The former employee, who is white, claimed, among many things, that Ms. Deen used the “N” word to describe African Americans taking part in Ms. Deen’s brother’s weddings and oversaw a business that discriminated against black employees.

In a story reported in the infamous National Enquirer back in June, Ms. Deen stated in her deposition that she had used the “N-word” at times, saying “Yes, of course. But that’s just not a word that we use. I don’t – I don’t know.” As time has gone on things have changed since the 60’s in the south.” Ms. Deen said she used the term when telling her husband about an incident in 1986, “when a black man burst into the bank that I was working at and put a gun to my head. I didn’t feel real favorable towards him.”

Ms. Deen admitted she was sure that she had used the word since that incident but in a “non-mean way”. Ms. Deen said she probably used the word while repeating a conversation between black people. She said that her family, including her brother, does not discriminate against any race and objects to the N word “being used in any cruel or mean behavior”. Ms. Deen admitted to discussing wedding plans with the employee who was suing her, saying that she wanted it to have a “true Southern plantation-style theme” with black male servers but she did not follow through with the plans “because the media would be on me about that.”  She denied having used the “N-word” when discussing the wedding wait staff. And, in the employee’s deposition, she contradicts her allegations and asserts that Ms. Deen never made a racist remark.

Over the summer, additional information leaked out from the trial which called into question the former employees accusations, but no one paid much attention to this.  The media spotlight was on Deen – and newspaper, television and internet reports hammered her racist remarks into our heads and the public, well, we ate it all up.  It was too good to resist.  And so the media gave us more.  The more we “ate” the more outraged we became.  Relying solely upon the gossip we ingested, many of us were horrified by Ms. Deen and her admitting to the use of such vulgar language – even though it was not used at work – which is what the trial was all about.  Her corporate sponsors heard the outrage and responded.  The Food Network announced that it would not renew her contract when it expired at the end of June.  On June 24, Smithfield Foods dropped Deen as a spokeswoman. In addition, Walmart,Target, QVC, Caesars Entertainment, Home Depot, the diabetes drug company Novo Nordisk, J.C. Penney, Sears, and K-Mart terminated or suspended endorsement deals with her.

In a bit of a PR nightmare, Deen issued a few public apologies attempting to own her mistakes, save her business and condemn hateful speech.  Her new book, which has yet to be published, surged to the top spot on Amazon’s best-sellers list, but her publisher, Ballantine Books, decided to cancel the deal to publish the book. The Paula Deen Empire now lies in shambles. 

Let me say very clearly: using any type of racial or religious slur is wrong.  Period.  And I was bothered by what I heard about Ms. Deen.

However, this Rosh HaShanah, I see that what brought Paula Deen down was not simply racial slurs that she admitted to using in private years ago.  What also brought her down was l’shon ha’rah – information that was shared about her that was brought to light during a court proceeding – and our culture’s insatiable desire to ingest l’shon ha’rah and regurgitate it, sharing it with everyone we know.  In the case of Ms. Deen – and many other people in the spotlight recently – information was spread through the media, taken out of context, interpreted by everyone and their brother on Facebook, Twitter and blogs where the 21st century’s overnight “journalists” wait to attack.  Conclusions were reached – while a trial was taking place – and Paula Deen was convicted by the public before the trial concluded.  I stand before you as someone who convicted her.

Judaism places a high value on the judicial system.  Courts and judges have been a part of who we are as a people since biblical times.  Judaism places the utmost importance on the testimony of honest witnesses.  It is this testimony that ensures the smooth functioning of the judicial system and the pursuit of true justice.  Judaism teaches us that the testimony of one person is usually not enough to prove a point.  The Torah says “One witness shall not arise against a man for any sin or guilt that he may commit; according to two witnesses or according to three witnesses a matter shall stand.” Thus, Jewish law usually states that two witnesses are needed to provide conclusive proof of what really happened. These witnesses need to have been actual witnesses to the event at the heart of any trial. Hearsay is l’shon ha’ra.  Hearing about events of a trial through the media, not getting all the facts and personally deciding to convict a defendant before the judge and/or jury can make their decision is relying on hearsay.  This undermines the judicial process.  The Torah insists that we pursue justice with all of our strength.  Allowing the judicial process to take its course is imperative.  Convicting someone while a trial is going on runs counter to everything Jewish and, in this country where you are innocent until proven guilty, everything American.  When we convict someone based upon what we hear – we are engaging in l’shon ha’rah.  

I realized that I convicted Ms. Deen based upon what I heard.  So, as I began the Elul Challenge in early August, I decided to reflect upon my conviction of her.  A friend of mine encouraged me to compare Ms. Deen to some of the senior members of the Jewish community.  “Not to excuse Ms. Deen’s words,” my friend said, “but when we factor in her age and her Southern roots,” he said, “we must think about some of the members of our Jewish community of the same age group – and how they refer to different racial groups.”  Racial and religious slurs are not okay – but we must consider who is doing the speaking in order to understand the severity of the offense.  When your grandmother uses the infamous and insulting Yiddish slur for a black person that begins with an “s” – does that make your grandmother a terrible human being or someone who is a bit ignorant and needs to be schooled in proper speech and sensitivity?  Words that disgust us today, were, not that long ago, acceptable.  We owe it to those who grew up with these words to help them change their vocabulary – don’t we?

As the month of Elul began during the second week of August, I started reading more about Ms. Deen.  I realized that she incriminated herself.  She was honest.  She owned her own l’shon ha’rah – her own use of racial slurs many years ago.  She explained why the words were used.  She explained that they were used primarily with her husband, in private. Certainly, her explanation does not excuse her words, but she did admit to them and apologized.  On these High Holy Days, when we are encouraged to face our failings and seek forgiveness from those we have wronged, we can’t help but wonder if Ms. Deen would have been better off keeping her use of racial slurs in the past to herself.  But then, she would not have been honest.  And honesty is important, isn’t it?  And, we, as a culture, have forgiven other, much bigger celebrities for using racial and religious slurs – haven’t we? (To name names would be l’shon ha’rah…sorry)  Is Ms. Deen’s sin not worthy of our forgiveness?  If you own your mistake and apologize, at what point can you stop apologizing?  Judaism requires us to apologize three times.  If we are not forgiven after the third attempt, Judaism says we have done what is needed to atone.  Does this apply to people like Ms. Deen?  And why is that we can’t we embrace an apology from someone as quickly as we can embrace gossip about them?

On August 12, one week into the Elul Challenge, a federal judge dismissed the claims of racial discrimination that were brought against Deen.  The judge ruled that the plaintiff could not claim to be a victim of racial discrimination targeting African-American workers as she is white and just a “an accidental victim of the alleged racial discrimination.” Later, both sides agreed to dismiss the lawsuit “without any award of costs or fees to any party.” On August 23, as I continued to wrestle with the Elul Challenge, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Georgia Southern Division tossed out the case altogether.  Ms. Deen, the woman I had already convicted was now no longer at risk of any legal conviction.  To top things off, the woman who charged Deen with racism and sexual harassment released a statement saying:

 

I assumed that all of my complaints about the workplace environment were getting to Paula Deen, but I learned during this matter that this was not the case. The Paula Deen I have known for more than 8 years, is a woman of compassion and kindness and will never tolerate discrimination or racism of any kind toward anyone.  I wish Ms. Deen and her family all the best in all of their future endeavors and I am very pleased that this matter has been now been resolved and can now be put behind us.

 

She might be able to put this incident behind her.  But, Paula Deen, someone whom her accuser now says would never tolerate discrimination or racism of any kind, has been convicted by the public and is seen as a horrible racist. 

As a result of all of the chatter that has surrounded this dismissed trial, Deen’s name, reputation and business have been destroyed.  The Chafetz Chayim teaches us that if someone does wrong and does not face a trial, it is okay to engage in l’shon ha’rah to correct the behavior of the offender and protect the rest of the community.  However, the damage done to the offender by the l’shon ha’rah cannot cause more damage to the offender than they would have faced if they had appeared before a judge.  Paula Deen appeared before a judge.  The case was dismissed.  The accuser said Ms. Deen is not a racist.  Deen was not issued any fines.  She was not punished by the court in any way.  She was not found guilty.  But, nonetheless, she was destroyed.

Reverend Jesse Jackson argued that Ms. Deen should be reclaimed rather than destroyed. And in July, his Rainbow Push organization – downplayed any racism and racial discrimination by Deen.  President Jimmy Carter, with whom I often disagree – mainly on Israel – has urged that Ms. Deen be forgiven, stating, “I think she has been punished, perhaps overly severely, for her honesty in admitting it and for the use of the word in the distant past. She has apologized profusely.”  I can now say I agree with President Carter – her punishment does not fit her crime and I am sorry I fell victim to the l’shon ha’rah frenzy.  But the damage of l’shon ha’rah has been done. 

There is a famous story about a man who spreads gossip about another member of his town.  He realizes he has been wrong and visits the rabbi to determine what he can do to repair the damage he has done.  The rabbi instructs him to take a feather pillow out into the wind, tear it open and return to him.  The man does as the rabbi instructs him.  The rabbi tells him to go back outside and collect the feathers – all of them.  The man says: “but that is impossible”.  “Correct,” said the rabbi – “and so is repairing the damage your words have caused.”

It will never truly be over for Ms. Deen.  There will forever be feathers from this ordeal floating around.  And Ms. Dean is just one of the victims of needless, senseless l’shon ha’rah.  I referred to the countless celebrities, politicians and people who are accused of crimes who are gossiped about without end.  And then, of course, there are the regular folks…the people who don’t lead public lives – just regular people like you and me.  We have all heard things about others much less famous than Ms. Deen – we have  heard things about people in this room and the greater South Florida community.  We have shared what we have heard.  We have scattered our own share of feathers that can never be collected.  And for what purpose?  Has it made our lives better?  And how about those of us who have been gossiped about?  Those of us less famous than Ms. Deen.  You are here today.  Maybe you really screwed up or maybe the gossip about you was just made up – no matter what – you know why the rabbis called it the EVIL tongue.  It hurts beyond words to be talked about.  And the damage it can do is tremendous.  It strips you of your dignity and takes the holiness out of life.  While Paula Deen’s demise deserves our attention, it is because of your painful experiences with l’shon ha’rah that I challenge us all to watch our words.

As we enter a new year and look at ways we can grow as individuals and as a community, let’s acknowledge that we need to hesitate before we speak.  Not talking about someone when the urge to do so is overwhelming is a difficult but great thing.  In the ancient Jewish text, Pirkei Avot, Rabbi Shimon teaches us: “Even though all my life I grew up among scholars, I discovered nothing more fitting for a person than silence.  For the learning is not the main thing but the action.  And whoever uses too many words brings on sin.”  Choosing silence instead of gossip is a spiritual choice – a hard choice in such a noisy society.   Tuning out the noise, chatter and gossip and sitting with family and friends, a good book or just a quiet head is a spiritual choice.  Choices we are capable of making, choices that will benefit you and the world.

Here is to a new year where l’shon ha’rah – the evil tongue is replaced by the lev kadosh – holy heart.  Shanah Tovah

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