Friday, 8 July 2011

On Gossip and the News of the World - All The News That is Fit to Preach

The opening words of the Jewish prayer service are taken from this week’s parasha.

Bilaam looks over the encampment of the Israelites and says

Mah Tovu Ohelecha Yirsael – How goodly are thy tents, O Jacob

(sometimes the King James translation is the only one that conveys suffienient pomp).

Rashi wants to know what he saw that was so good.

Bilaam, says Rashi, saw that the opening of the tents were not facing one another.

The encampment of the Israelites was arranged to protect privacy.

It is not holy to be a snooper.

As it teaches in the Mishnah[1]

If you share a courtyard with others you may not open a door facing anther person’s door, or a window facing another person’s window.

Privacy is a Jewish value.

Modesty is just the sort of value, properly understood, that we could do well to rediscover in these days of exaggerated self-promotion and, particularly this week, in this time of unasked for exploitation of private conversations and private grief.

‘All the news that’s fit to preach’ – as my stepfather suggested when I told him what I wanted to talk about this Shabbat.


We are all, and I include myself in this, a little too addicted to peering into the tents of our fellows.

We have become used to an ever richer diet of gossip and salaciousness.

I’m quite sure I know how acts as wrong as hacking into the phones of murder victims and bereaved soldiers’ relatives came about.

The Mishnah calls it aveira goreret aveirah – one sin brings along another in its wake.[2]

Maybe once there was a genuine reason why someone’s phone was tapped, but then it became too easy to find another way to find out some other piece of news, so a second phone was hacked, and a third and a fourth and on and on until there is no contrary voice saying, hang-on. This is wrong. Privacy is also a value. There are some things that should not be plastered over the front of the papers, even if we find them interesting.

In fact the counter-voice, the one that says, hold-back, be quiet, don’t snoop is especially important when the thing we might find should we peer is likely to intrigue us, amuse us.

We are too used to turning the world around us into an object of our amusement. We need to make the counter voice, that says that the world around us is exists to test our ability to care for it, to care for its inhabitants.


I’m not making a case that embarrassing secrets should always be suppressed, that would be ridiculous.

I’m a huge believer in transparency

From a religious perspective. Indeed the sense that a person should behave as if every action is available for maximum scrutiny is a central religious precept – da lifnei mi attach omed – know before whom you stand is usually marked above the ark.

Ztofeh vyodea setareinu – we sing in Yigdal – God observes and knows our secrets, we sing of God in the Yigdal. God is the unseen watcher, looking on and recording all our deeds, our successes and our failures.

It’s a big Rosh Hashanah idea.


But this sense of holy oversight, religious oversight, exists within our faith to promote justice, kindness and decency. It’s a brake on our yester hara – the evil inclination within us all, it’s designed to feed out passion for salacious gossip and prurience –

Listen how the great verses which demand our decency are understood by our tradition in the light of our Jewish belief in the importance of transparency

Lo titian michshol don’t place a stumbling block before a blind person, thinking you can get away with it because they can’t see you. Vareyta m’elokecha Because God is watching.

Lo tikalel heresh – don’t curse a deaf person, thinking you can get away with it because they can’t hear you. Ki ani hashem Because God is hearing.

Our deeds are exposed, and we are encouraged to reveal our flaws before the one, and it is a wonderful Biblical turn of phrase, who knows the inner working of our kidneys.

But this value placed on transparency is because this religious faith in transparency improves us, it improves the lot of the society in which we all live, a society where too many secrets, too much privacy can shroud and hide tremendous wrongdoing.

The moral code of the One doing this religious oversight is a code of loving kindness, justice and decency.

When the oversight of our private lives is provided from a place of loving kindness, justice and decency the idea is that we become kinder, more just and more decent.


In this religious commitment to transparency our deeds are not revealed to titivate and titillate. Our deeds are not to be revealed to drive up sales.

Again, it would be too easy to simply pour scorn on the journalists. We have the journalism we deserve.

There is a line in the Talmud that suggest that

As the people, so their leaders.

Perhaps it could be reworded, as the people, so their journalists.

We get the media we deserve.

I don’t know how many of us regularly buy the News of the World, but I suspect far too many of us enjoy our salacious tittle tattle, gossipy, sexy … all very exciting.

We are all responsible for the kind of intrusion that doesn’t place kindness, justice and decency at the heart of everything we hold most dear.


Looking into other people’s lives is important.

Journalism is important.

Investigation brings out the criminal and the depraved actions that secrecy can protect.

It was, after all, good old fashioned investigative reporting that blew the cover on these allegations of phone hacking.

Investigating the lives of others can be fine.

But we all spend too much time snooping.

Snooping plays into the hands of our Yetzer Hara, the evil inclination that exists in all us us, drawing us into the salacious.

It makes us progressively less and less good


A few weeks ago I spoke on a similar issue, it was the week that Ryan Gigg’s private life was unceremoniously outed on the public arena.

I spoke then about the obligation to criticise – Tochecha.

For there is indeed an obligation to criticise, but it is perhaps the most dangerous of all obligations because it is so easily overcooked.

We might begin by thinking that we are doing the important and holy work of criticism, but it so easily lapses into point scoring, self-aggrandising and causing pain to others.

I told this story, it bears retelling.

Tzanzer Maggid in shul of another Rebbe – railing against a third Rebbe, he points out flaw after flaw.

Afterwards the Maggid comes up to the preacher –

But Mitzvah to critcise.

Tzander Maggid – if Mitzvah your yetzer hara – evil inclination - should be telling you not to do it.

If you start enjoying telling truths that cause pain you have the balance wrong.


What goes for the obligation to critique goes on this issue of intrusion, I think equally.

If we think our acts of peering into the lives of others are fine, we should check that our Yestzer Harah is urging us not to snoop.

We are too easily turned into treating other people as objects of our own amusement and titillation.

That’s terrible.

We are supposed to treat other people as the test of our ability to be kind and compassionate.

Buber – the holiest relationship to have, with another person, is one in which we do things for other people NOT for our own sake.

We do things for other people because of our love for them, our commitment to them and our desire that they should be immune from pain and suffering.

Prurience is the ultimate defeating of Buber’s notion of an important relationship.


We can try this, perhaps next time we are faced with the offer of peering into the lives of others.

Let me set the challenge in the language of that great Rashi which suggests that the greatness of the encampment of Israel is that the tents were pitched to look away from the private business of the other.

For me that Rashi raises image of the second person to arrive at the camp site.

The fist tent is pitched, and the second person comes and they take the decision to pitch their tent to look away.

We need to develop the confidence and the strength to pitch our tent so as to look away.


The next time you arrive at one of the many campsites of our lives pitch the tent so you look away.

Pitch the tent so you are not drawn to peer into the lives of others.

Relate to the people around you not as a source of personal amusement, but as human beings to whom you owe a duty of care, particularly if they are vulnerable.


For the way in which you set up your tent will strike the person who arrives next, and the person after that.

And in this way we shall build a better and kinder society.


Shabbat shalom


[1] Baba Batra 60a

[2] Avot

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