An Anti-Defamation League unto Himself

I’ve read half of Philip Roth’s books, a few more than once.  Recently I returned to the novel Operation Shylock and was struck by this testimonial outburst of one of the characters—

“‘Grant me that I should say nothing that is unnecessary. …’ This is from the prayer of the Chofetz Chaim. I am a disciple of the Chofetz Chaim. No Jew had more love for his fellow Jews than the Chofetz Chaim. You don’t know the teachings of the Chofetz Chaim? A great man, a humble scholar, a revered rabbi from Radin, in Poland, he devoted his long life to trying to get Jews to shut up. He died at ninety-three in Poland the year that you were born in America. It is he who formulated the detailed laws of speech for our people and tried to cure them of the bad habits of centuries. The Chofetz Chaim formulated the laws of evil speech, or loshon hora, the laws that forbid Jews’ making derogatory or damaging remarks about their fellow Jews, even if they are true. If they are false, of course it’s worse. It is forbidden to speak loshon hora and it is forbidden to listen to loshon hora, even if you don’t believe it. In his old age, the Chofetz Chaim extolled his deafness because it prevented him from hearing loshon hora. You can imagine how bad it had to have been for a great conversationalist like the Chofetz Chaim to say a thing like that. There is nothing about loshon hora that the Chofetz Chaim did not clarify and regulate: loshon hora said in jest, loshon hora without mentioning names, loshon hora that is common knowledge, loshon hora about relatives, about in-laws, about children, about the dead, about heretics and ignoramuses and known transgressors, even about merchandise — all forbidden. Even if someone has spoken loshon hora about you, you cannot speak loshon hora about him. Even if you are falsely accused of having committed a crime, you are forbidden to say who did do the crime. You cannot say ‘He did it,’ because that is loshon hora. You can only say ‘I didn’t do it.’ Does it give you an idea of what the Chofetz Chaim was up against if he had to go that far to stop Jewish people’s blaming and accusing their neighbors of everything and anything? Can you imagine the animosity he witnessed? Everyone feeling wronged, being hurt, bristling at insults and slights; everything everybody says taken as a personal affront and a deliberate attack; everyone saying something derogatory about everyone else. Anti-Semitism on the one side, loshon hora on the other, and in between, being squeezed to death, the beautiful soul of the Jewish people! The poor Chofetz Chaim was an Anti-Defamation League unto himself — only to get Jews to stop defaming one another. Someone else with his sensitivity to loshon hora would have become a murderer. But he loved his people and could not bear to see them brought low by their chattering mouths. He could not stand their quarreling, and so he set himself the impossible task of promoting Jewish harmony and Jewish unity instead of bitter Jewish divisiveness.”

Over the years, I’ve been made aware, through Sri Eknath Easwaran, of the Sufi three-gate rule. I’ve shared with friends and students Ryōkan’s  personal precepts.  Of course, I am familiar with the 4th Wonderful Precept updated by Thich Nhat Hanh. And now, thanks to Roth, I am reading A Lesson a Day.


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