Rabbi Joseph Telushkin wants us to watch our language. President Clinton has offered similar exhortations. The president, though, suffers from a certain credibility gap. For no sooner does he denounce the spirit and tone of civil discourse in America today than he turns around and commits a sin of his own. Even within the past few days, the president has returned to a favorite tactic, labeling Republican proposals as "extremist."
Rabbi Telushkin doesn't suffer from that handicap. With humor but in deadly earnest, the rabbi (who writes murder mysteries, anthologies of Jewish humor, as well as more serious works of scholarship) has been at pains to introduce the wider world to the Jewish concept of "lashon hora" or hurtful speech. He has even managed to get Senators Joseph Lieberman and Connie Mack to introduce a resolution in the Senate to create a national Speak No Evil Day.
Within the Jewish tradition, malicious gossip is not regarded as a trifle. The Hebrew term for "words" is It is rare for people in my profession to pause before repeating some delicious tidbit about someone famous and ask: 'Is it true? . . . . Is it something I should be repeating to others?'
"devarim," which also means "things." And words are indeed regarded as things -- capable of doing great good as well as great harm.
The story is told of a small village in Eastern Europe. One of the men in the community made it a practice to slander the rabbi at every opportunity. At length, feeling guilty at his lies and misrepresentations, the man presented himself to the rabbi, admitted his error and asked for forgiveness. The rabbi considered for a moment and then told the man to first go to the top of the highest hill and there to cut open a feather pillow and scatter the contents to the winds. "When you have done that," he said, "return to me."
The penitent man did as he was told and returned to the rabbi. "I've done as you asked," said the slanderer. "Am I forgiven?"
"Almost," replied the rabbi. "You need to do just one more thing. Go and gather all of the feathers up again."
"But that's impossible," protested the man. "They've been blown by the four winds."
"Yes," said the rabbi, "and so is it also impossible to undo the damage you have done with your words, which can never be retrieved."
Few of us have been trained to think of gossip as intrinsically evil. Washington, D.C., and particularly my profession, journalism, run on it. People like to prove their importance by what they know about others -- especially if what they know is unflattering. And it is seen as a mark of naivete not to believe the worst about everyone. It is rare for people in my profession to pause before repeating some delicious tidbit about someone famous and ask: "Is it true? And even if I believe it to be true, is it something I should be repeating to others for the sheer delight of damaging someone's reputation?"
Refraining from malicious gossip would not in the slightest restrain or inhibit robust debate about issues. And it is not, as far as I know, considered sinful to describe someone's ideas as misguided or wrongheaded. But Mr. Telushkin would like to see a moratorium on inflammatory comparisons -- such as the facile use of analogies to Nazism. After the 1988 presidential campaign, Mayor Andrew Young of Atlanta and Rep. Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., offered that not since the days of Hitler and Goebbels had a political campaign depended so heavily on the use of the "big lie" as did that of George Bush.
The Nazi comparison has since been trotted out regularly by Democrats in response to each plank in the Contract with America. Mr. Telushkin, finding error on all sides, is also critical of Rush Limbaugh for using the term "feminazi." (My view is that Rush Limbaugh is more sinned against than sinning.)
Is Mr. Telushkin overly sensitive? Consider the dour reflection of President Andrew Jackson, a victim of scurrilous attacks himself. "The murderer only takes the life of the parent and leaves his character as a goodly heritage to his children, while the slanderer takes away his goodly reputation and leaves him a living monument to his children's disgrace."
Mona Charen is a syndicated columnist.