From left, Bob Yugi Festa, the Rev. Lisa Williams of...

From left, Bob Yugi Festa, the Rev. Lisa Williams of Bethel AME Church, and Rabbi Michael Rascoe of Temple Israel of Riverhead. Credit: Barbara Festa; Hy-Sync Media / James McCray; Michael Rascoe

Gossip is pervasive in our lives — in families, the workplace, in friend groups, on social media sites, in tabloids and on TV programs that claim to "spill the tea" on celebrities and other public figures. This week’s clergy discuss when gossip is sinful, counterproductive or harms both the teller and the listener.

Rabbi Michael Rascoe

Temple Israel of Riverhead

Judaism doesn’t like gossip even when it is true. Exodus 23:1 says, "Don’t carry a false rumor," and Leviticus 19:16, "Don’t go about slandering another."

One should walk away from gossip, but when impractical, one must be careful how one reacts. Judaism prohibits nonverbally acknowledging slander by a wink or nod, or even silence or a frown, if it encourages gossip. To pass on negative information about another, the information must be significant, current, relevant, useful, specific, precise and constructive. It must protect the listener from financial or physical harm. One’s motive must be only for this purpose and not another, like revenge.

One must mention the positive with the negative if it might change the relationship. The listener must remember that this information might not be true. One shouldn’t slander one’s self. Gossip falls into the category of lashon ha-ra, evil language. Rabbi Israel Meir Ha-Kohen Kagan wrote in "Sefer Chofetz Chaim" (ArtScroll, 2021), his book about gossip, that one who desires life (based on Psalms 34:13-14) should "keep your tongue from evil, your lips from speaking deceit." His next book, "Sh’mirat Ha-lashon" (ArtScroll, 2022), covers how to guard one’s speech.

Bob Yugi Festa of Huntington

Zen practitioner

From the Buddhist perspective, it is always counterproductive to engage in idle chatter because it is a hindrance to a life of lasting happiness free of suffering. Gossip is prompted by our need to be important by knowing something that others don’t, thus fulfilling the need to promote the self of I, me, mine.

A major part of the Buddhist practice is to see that the self is a construct that is actually empty of permanence and independence from others. Its needs do not lead to lasting happiness. Idle chatter is an example of the opposite of right speech in the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path, which leads to nirvana. Right speech is to abstain from lying, divisive or abusive speech and idle chatter.

How to deal with those who gossip is a tricky question in Buddhism. If you attempt to counsel the person gossiping on right speech, they often will take it as an attack and get defensive, which leads to divisive speech in both the gossiper and you. Your need to judge is often a product of the self. Better to say nothing and change the subject at your first opportunity.

The Rev. Lisa M. Williams

Pastor, Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, Setauket

At its core, gossip is always a sin. Gossip reveals sensational, often personal information about someone else’s private business that does not concern you and may not even be confirmed as being true. This is vastly different in intent and content from sharing verified information. Moreover, these often embellished conversations, like the children’s game of "telephone," change dramatically as they are reshared, leaving wounded souls in their wake.

Understandably this is why the Bible instructs us to avoid those who gossip (Proverbs 20:19). Jesus gave us a new command to "love one another" (John 13:34), which he further defined by giving us the second great commandment to "love our neighbor as ourselves" (Mark 12: 31).

I would counsel a person who repeats gossip to stop and ask yourself, "Would you want a hundred people or even one person sharing your secrets? If not, then let us endeavor to abide by God’s word: 'Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear' " (Ephesians 4:29).

Sticks and stones may indeed break our bones, but words live on to haunt us.

DO YOU HAVE QUESTIONS you’d like Newsday to ask the clergy? Email them to LILife@newsday.com.

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