Progressively Speaking! This week: the spreading of rumour and hoaxes

Progressively Speaking! This week: the spreading of rumour and hoaxes

Rabbi Sandra Kviat looks at a topical issue and delves into the Torah for a Liberal Jewish response


 “You shall not go up and down as a slanderer [or talebearer] among your people” (Leviticus 19:16) 

In recent weeks, worried parents and teachers have gone into overdrive because of the so-called ‘Momo Challenge’ on social media, which reportedly was encouraging children to do harmful acts to themselves and others. We now know it was all a hoax, but it highlights how difficult it is to distinguish between real and fake news, between real concerns and scaremongering.

A core Jewish ethic is the prohibition of lashon harah (malicious speech) and its practical application, rechilut (the practice of repeating those things to others). Spreading false rumours and causing fear and panic is part of this prohibition.

However, the overwhelming majority of those who posted about the ‘Momo Challenge’ on their Facebook feeds, or shared warnings with friends via WhatsApp did so in good faith, believing it to be real and wanting to make sure others were aware as well.

Were they guilty of lashon hara? The answer is, of course, no.

However, what this has highlighted is the need not just to educate our children about online safety, but also to educate ourselves. As adults, we must do what is called ‘social milling’, not taking a single tweet or post as fact, but rather look at trusted websites to check and recheck the information, and to not rush to panic. The Momo hoax has shown how powerful words can be, what impact they can have for evil, but also for good.


For lashon hara, or gossip as it is normally called, may be harmful, but it can also be helpful. Depending on the context, tale-bearing can also be a way of questioning power and powerful individuals and of bringing important knowledge on, using our networks for communication.

How to use the power of words, when to speak up and when not to, when to pass information on and when not to, is difficult.

But instead of only looking at the verse from Leviticus, perhaps we should also consider the wisdom in the Book of Proverbs, which reminds us that ‘The Torah of kindness is on her tongue’ (Proverbs 31.26).

υ Rabbi Sandra Kviat serves Crouch End Chavurah

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