To tell the truth?
Tuesday in Teaneck

To tell the truth?

Rabbi Daniel Feldman remembers his father, Rabbi David Feldman, with his new book

Three generations of Feldmans – Rabbi David, Rabbi Daniel, and Daniel’s son Yaakov.
Three generations of Feldmans – Rabbi David, Rabbi Daniel, and Daniel’s son Yaakov.

For the last few years, Rabbi Daniel Feldman of Teaneck has been working on a book.

It is on a subject close to his heart —lashon hara, literally evil speech, one of the worst pitfalls against which Jews are warned. Still, the book has not been on the top of his to-do list.

The author of three books in Hebrew and three others in English; a rosh yeshiva at RIETS, Yeshiva University’s rabbinical school; a teacher at YU’s business and social work schools, and an editor at RIETS Press, the spiritual leader of a small synagogue, Ohr Saadya — and also, and far from least importantly, a husband and the father of five children — Rabbi Feldman clearly has many calls on his attention.

But last November 28, Rabbi Feldman’s father, David Feldman, the rabbi emeritus of the Teaneck Jewish Center, died. David Feldman, Daniel Feldman said, “did so much good with his speech, in so many different ways — he brought so much value through his words.”

But, he added, words are not always necessary, another lesson his father taught him.

“He had the capacity to uplift others, even without words, through his constant smile and ready laughter,” Rabbi Feldman said. David Feldman learned from Rabbi Yisrael Salanter that a person’s face is inherently in the “public domain,” he continued, so he made sure to arrange his features accordingly. “His good humor always had an effect on those around him,” Daniel Feldman said.

“I had discussed the book with my father, and I had made some progress on it,” he added. “More recently, I focused on associating it with a memorial to him. It is dedicated in his memory, and I hope that it will be a valuable memorial to him.”

The book will be launched on Tuesday, November 17. “That date is not coincidental,” Rabbi Feldman said. “It was timed for my father’s yarzheit.”

The book, “False Facts and True Rumors: Lashon HaRa in Contemporary Culture,” looks at some of the paradoxes inherent in the injunction against not only gossip and slander but in some instances harsh truths as well. “It examines the nature of the prohibition against speaking badly about others,” Rabbi Feldman said. “On the one hand, much of that is understandable; it’s clear why it’s bad to speak negatively, but a detail that often surprises people is that the prohibition is also against true information.”

There are many reasons for that. “It often is the case that things that we think are true actually aren’t true, don’t paint a full picture, or are somehow misleading,” he said. “I tried to go through the Torah literature, and also to look at the psychology and other social sciences. We all have cognitive biases; there are other reasons why things that we think we understand can be misleading.

“Also, whatever we say has an impact on someone else. That’s why we have to be extra careful that everything we say is both accurate and necessary. Understanding that value is a challenge, and I try to help people understand it.”

On the other hand, he continued, there are times when people must make hard truths public. “It often is necessary to say negative things to protect yourself or others, or to protect society. Finding that balance is a great challenge. Knowing what to say and what not to say, what to believe and what not to believe — it can take a lifetime of refining your sensitivity.

“Maybe that is why in Jewish life, particularly in the last century, there has been such an emphasis on it” — on lashon harah — “because it’s not just a matter of knowing a few laws. It’s a matter of having a refined sensibility. It both comes with age and requires a lot of work to create this kind of sensitivity and awareness.”

David Feldman was a longtime pulpit rabbi, but he also was an academic who specialized in medical ethics, particularly as it intersected with Jewish law. So when Daniel Feldman talks about his book as he marks his father’s first yarzheit, he plans on concentrating on how lashon hara and Jewish medical ethics come together. “How do we know what information should or should not be released in the context of a potential marriage? How much can be revealed before meeting someone? Before marrying someone? How much is public? How much is private? And what can a third party be asked? What can a third party say? About the person? About the family? About anything else that might be relevant?

“And what if the relationship doesn’t work out? What can or can’t be discussed?

“What if a doctor is asked? What is a doctor allowed to reveal? What about professional ethics?”

When he was asked whether his book’s title, set as a paradox, was any kind of conscious homage to Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Rabbi Feldman paused and smiled. It was not, he said, but “My father was close to Heschel. He might have liked the overtone.”

Who: Rabbi Daniel Feldman

What: Talks about his new book, “False Facts and True Rumors: Lashon HaRa in Contemporary Culture”

When: On Tuesday, November 17, at 8:30 p.m.

Where: At Rabbi Feldman’s shul, Ohr Saadya, 554 Teaneck Road, in Teaneck

Why: To mark the first yarzheit of his father, Rabbi David Feldman.

Who is invited: It is open to the entire community.

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