Michael Jackson: Better off Dead?

Michael Jackson was laid to rest today, but I wonder if we slowly killed him years ago. In the two weeks since his passing, the myriad articles that have come out seem to couple any mention of his eccentricity or bizarreness with an explanation of his rough childhood or lonely adulthood. It makes me think that the media is finally done torturing the guy now that he's gone. Mocking the dead, after all, is in poor taste in almost everyone's book.

Now while it's admirable to show respect for the deceased, how about the living? Aren't their feelings even more important since they're still around to have them? Although I never met Michael (I did, however, meet the dog he gave Shmuley Boteach!) I am certain that no matter how bizarre he was, he never enjoyed public ridicule, yet that's how "Whacko Jacko" spent most of the last two decades.

Despite his money and fame, there was very little that Jackson could have done to protect himself against the nastiness in the media because the American legal system tacitly enables gossip mongering. Any negative information spread about a person is only considered defamation is if it is untrue. In other words, anyone can reveal any secret or make any statement about another, without fear of legal retribution, as long as the information is factual. 

In Judaism we have a very different take on this issue. Telling true negative stories about another person is strictly prohibited by the Torah and is called lashon hara (evil speech). Speaking lashon hara is considered as serious as murdering someone, and listening to it is even worse, because it allows the speaker to have an audience.

Yet even with such a vehement stance against speaking and listening to gossip, it remains one of the hardest mitzvahs for people (even in the religious community) to adhere to. Why? I don't know for sure, but as my rabbi once put it, "lashon hara is geshmake" (which means delicious, in Yiddish). My first thought upon hearing him say that was, "Oh no, not you too, rabbi!" But after thinking about it some more, I realized that just as we are wired to enjoy certain tastes and aromas, so too we are wired to enjoy hearing and spreading "juicy" gossip.

If we had no interest in it, there'd be no challenge in refraining from it. It's only when something is a struggle that we have the opportunity to choose right from wrong. So the next time the choice comes your way, remember that they don't call it character "assassination" or mortification (derived from le mort, the French word for death) for nothing. While going cold turkey might be tough, going lashon hara light should be doable for everyone.

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  1. Thank you for this very important point. You are so right about how challenging it truly is to refrain from Lashon Hara. Even the nicest and most well meaning people have been known to indulge in it.
    Your willingness to discuss this topic and other challengng topics is amazing. Thank you for reminding us all that it truly is not in our own best interests either here or in the world to come (Olam Haba) to engage in Lashon Hara.

  2. barri glick says:

    sometimes the biggest “yentas” are the ones sitting in shul during the holy days. Well written blog. You go girl!!

  3. But also, let’s not forget that evidence strongly suggests that he was a pedophile and endangered the welfare of children. I agree with you regarding lashon hara, but some information that might pose a risk of danger, is important to discuss.

  4. yes Barri, unfortunately getting together to gossip on some of the most serious days of the year has become customary among some people. the best thing to do is to be aware of it and make sure to not do it yourself and try to find ways to get out of listening to your neighbor’s gossip without totally offending them!

  5. So in terms of the child molestation charges, Nina, I don’t know if he was innocent or guilty – he was never convicted, but that doesn’t necessarily mean anything.
    His daughter seemed to sincerely miss her father from the short clip I saw online from the memorial.
    If it’s a matter of protecting someone than it’s of course not lashon hara in that case. But the stuff that people talked about with MJ was not just the molestation. It was his surgeries, his skin disease, his sexuality (or asexuality), rumors about his failed marriages. There’d be headlines about him and aliens and all sorts of bizarre stuff. Sure the guy was atypical, but the media loved to feed off of his problems.
    But for the record, so there’s no confusion, when it comes to protecting someone, we’re obligated to speak out, whether it be a monetary concern or a bodily one.

  6. Let’s not forget, though, that telling Lashon Hara that is NOT true is just as assur–it is known as Motzi Shem Ra.

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