Tazria-Metzora: Rules for Kvetching?

Clinical psychologist Dr. Susan Silk has a “Ring Theory” of Kvetching (complaining). She summarizes it as: “Comfort in -- Dumping out.”*   

According to Dr. Silk’s theory, we should draw a circle and place at its center the name of the person most affected by any situation about which we might kvetch.  We should then write in concentric circles the names of everyone to whom we might kvetch, ranked by how close they are to the person in the center.  This results in a “kvetching order.” 

The “Ring Theory” permits us to kvetch to anyone in a more “outer” circle than ourself, but we can only provide comfort and support to anyone in a more “inner” circle than we are.  Usually, providing comfort and support means limiting our comments to sympathetic listening, without giving advice or sharing our own problems.  No kvetching is allowed to anyone closer than we are to the person at center of the circle!

It’s an interesting guide to interpersonal communication.  How does it fare according to Jewish ethics? 

The Pros: Dr. Silk’s theory is highly commendable in its intent.  It urges us to carefully consider the impact of our words.  It should result, in most cases, in our putting the needs of others ahead of our own. It helps us put our own complaints in perspective.  It can remind us to give care and support, rather than just “saying what we feel” to whomever we wish, whenever we wish.  It can lessen the likihood of our inadvertently hurting others by saying the wrong thing.  The theory is simple, easy to understand, and relatively objective in application.  We usually know the relationship “status” between the person on the receiving end of our comments and the person at the center of the circle.  In all these respects, Kol hakavod to Dr. Silk and her theory! 

The Cons:  According to the theory, “The person in the center ring can say anything she wants to anyone, anywhere” and, more generally, “…you can say whatever you want if you just wait until you're talking to someone in a larger ring than yours.”  Ouch! These "rules" are certainly not in accord with Jewish ethics!  

We are never free to “say whatever we want” – to “dump,” as Dr. Silk puts it -- without regard to the impact of our words upon others, even when we are “at the center of the circle.”  Our pain or crisis doesn’t give us free passes to hurt others! And since, as the famous midrashim about pillow feathers released into the wind and arrows shot into the air illustrate, we can’t know the full impact of our words, we must always guard them.  

Even if we think we know two people’s apparent “relationship status,” we don’t know that our “ring” placement is accurate, much less unbiased.  A person’s co-worker may be “just” an “outer circle” acquaintance or actually a close “inner circle” friend.  Even if someone is in an “outer circle” compared with us, for all we know, that person had a painful personal experience similar to our “kvetch” and would be hurt by our mentioning it. 

Worst of all, a “say whatever we want” rule for kvetching to those we place in “outer circles” gives free reign – even sanction -- to gossip, which our sages regarded as an unmitigated evil.  Our desire to kvetch does not give us the right to gossip, even to those whom we place in “outer circles!”  Gossip, according to Jewish ethics, includes saying anything about any other person to any other person, without justifiable necessity, such as protecting the hearer from significant harm.

What we say and why, where, when, and how we say it are important, too, not just to whom we say it.

This does not mean that we can’t kvetch!  But kvetching ought be done only to a spouse, close friend, or other confidant  – and to G-d, which is a very important but oft-neglected purpose of frequent prayer. 

On a literal level, this week’s double Torah portion of Tazria-Metzora concerns contamination due to diseases, mold, and the like.  But the Torah regards these as consequences of improper conduct, and our sages took particular aim at inappropriate speech.  The “Ring Theory” of kvetching is an interesting and useful tool to help us consider our words and the needs of others.  But it is certainly not a complete model to help us avoid misusing the powerful and extremely dangerous weapon of our words.   

May you enjoy a blessed, peaceful, and contemplative Shabbat!


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A bird that you set free may be caught again, but a word that escapes your lips will not return.
Jewish Proverb