These are quintessential expressions of shame. First is the stigma, the public marks of disgrace or dishonor (the torn clothes, the unkempt hair). Then comes the ostracism, temporary exclusion from the normal affairs of society. These have nothing to do with illness and everything to do with social disapproval. This is what makes the laws of tzaraat so hard to understand at first: it is one of the rare appearances of public shame in a non-shame-based culture, a guilt-based culture. It happened, though, not because society had expressed its disapproval but because G-d was signaling that it should do so. Why specifically in the case of lashon hara, "evil speech"? Because speech is what holds society together. Anthropologists have argued that language evolved among humans precisely in order to strengthen the bonds between them so that they could cooperate in larger groupings than any other animal. What sustains cooperation is trust. This allows and encourages me to make sacrifices for the group, knowing that others can be relied on to do likewise. This is precisely why lashon hara is so destructive. It undermines trust. It makes people suspicious about one another. It weakens the bonds that hold the group together. If unchecked, lashon hara will destroy any group it attacks -- a family, a team, a community, even a nation. Hence its uniquely malicious character; it uses the power of language to weaken the very thing language was brought into being to create, namely, the trust that sustains the social bond. That is why the punishment for lashon hara was to be temporarily excluded from society by public exposure (the signs that appear on walls, furniture, clothes, and skin), stigmatism and shame (the torn clothes, etc.), and ostracism (being forced to live outside the camp). It is difficult, perhaps impossible, to punish the malicious gossiper using the normal conventions of law – – courts and the establishment of guilt. This can be done in the case of motzi shem ra, libel or slander, because these are all cases of making a false statement. Lashon hara is more subtle. It is done not by falsehood but by insinuation. There are many ways of harming a person's reputation without actually telling a lie. Someone accused of lashon hara can easily say, "I didn't say it, I didn't mean it, and even if I did, I did not say anything that was untrue." The best way of dealing with people who poison relationships without actually ordering falsehoods is by naming, shaming, and shunning them. That, according to the sages, is what tzarrat miraculously did in ancient times. It no longer exist in the form described in the Torah. But the use of the Internet and social media as instruments of public shaming illustrates both the power and the danger of a culture of shame. Only rarely does the Torah invoke it, and in the case of the metzora only by an act of G-d, not Society. Yet the moral of the metzora remains. Malicious gossip, lashon hara, undermines relationships, erodes the social bond, and damages trust. It deserves to be exposed and shamed. Never speak ill of others, and stay far from those who do.
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