Dear Jew in the City,
On one hand the Torah tells us we’re not supposed to speak lashon hara (evil speech), on the other hand, the Torah commands us to not stand idly by our neighbors blood (lo ta’amod al dam rei’echa). If we think someone is dangerous, how do we know when to remain silent and when to speak up?
To Speak or Not to Speak
This is an excellent question and God likely expected there to be such a tension: fear of gossiping preventing people from speaking up when there is danger. The Torah itself ends the verse about prohibiting evil speech with the commandment to not stand idly by your neighbor’s blood. It’s similar to another point of tension in the Torah. “Honor your parents” is followed by “keep Shabbos.” Kibbud av v’eim (like lashon hara) is important, but not at the expense of breaking Shabbos. Let’s take a look at how these laws interact practically, beginning with lashon hara.
The Torah tells us, “Do not go about as a talebearer among your people” (Leviticus 19:16). This is the source of a prohibition we call lashon hara, which literally means “evil speech” but refers specifically to gossip. The laws of lashon hara are many and there’s no way we could possibly cover them all, so I’ll just hit a few high points. (There are many fine books available that will cover the topic in greater detail.) In short, we are not permitted to say anything about another person that is derogatory (even if it will not cause him injury) or that may cause him injury (even if it is not derogatory).
An example of derogatory but not harmful: “Mary’s dress is ugly.” Nothing bad will happen to Mary because you shared this opinion but it’s just not nice. An example of harmful but not derogatory: “John voted for candidate X” (when said to someone who hates candidate X with a passion). It’s an objective statement of fact, perhaps something John himself shares freely in other circumstances, but it negatively colors this person’s impression of John.
There are other forms of speech that are similarly prohibited. For example, one may not overly praise a person, especially in front of his enemy, as this will cause other people to react by putting him down. Similarly, one may not make a vague statement that could be taken two ways. The classic example of this is telling someone who is looking for a meal, “Try the Smiths – they always have a pot on the stove!” This could be taken to mean that the Smiths are hospitable and are always ready to receive guests, or it could mean that the Smiths are gluttons, always eating. (If a nebulous statement is made in front of three people, the assumption is that the speaker assumes it will get back to the subject and therefore we assume that the positive sense was intended and it is permitted.)
There are a lot of ways that people try to justify lashon hara – “I’d say it to his face,” “It’s just a joke,” and the most popular defense, “But it’s true!” None of these permits lashon hara. “But it’s true!” is a particularly weak argument since lashon hara is by definition true. If it weren’t true, it would be called “motzi shem ra” – literally, “spreading a bad name.” In English, we would call this slander, as opposed to lashon hara, which is gossip.
However, there are some situations where we are not just permitted but are obligated to speak negatively of others. Usually (if not always), this is done in the defense of innocent victims and, as you say, is based on the second half of that same verse, “…do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.” If Bill is a kleptomaniac, do I have the right to share this information with Tony if there’s no conceivable chance Bill will ever get near Tony’s stuff? No. But if Tony is thinking of inviting Bill to stay for the weekend, I have the responsibility to tell Tony, in order to protect him from loss.
There are many situations where this principle could come into play. The most common is when being asked about a person for a job reference or for a shidduch (a prospective match). We don’t have free rein to go around badmouthing people, but there may be pieces of information that a potential boss or spouse needs to have in order to make an informed decision. You know that Bob made his MBA in PhotoShop? If you’re his reference, you must disclose that to the interviewer. You’re aware that Susie has a husband and six kids in another state? Her fiancé deserves to know that.
There are, however, conditions to sharing the negative that must be met:
(1) You have to know that the information you’re disclosing is true; you may not embellish or exaggerate;
(2) Sharing the information has to be the only way to protect the endangered party, or to accomplish some other necessary constructive purpose;
(3) The speaker’s intention must sincerely be to protect the endangered party or to accomplish the constructive goal. (If one is sharing information about a person he doesn’t like, it can be really hard to be objective about this!);
(4) The consequences of sharing the information cannot cause undue harm to the subject (and certainly not to anyone else!). If reporting that Joe took home a ball point pen from work will get him fired, the consequences are not commensurate with the offense and one might not be permitted to disclose that information.
Of course, there’s harm and then there’s harm. “Joe took home a ball point pen from work” is very different from “Joe is hiding in the alley with a machete, waiting to chop your head off.” The immediacy of the latter is clearly much more urgent. If you feel that a situation is truly dangerous, appropriate steps must be taken. That doesn’t necessarily make it easy.
Let’s take religion out of it for a minute and use the strictly-hypothetical example of someone questioning whether or not they should call Child Protective Services on a friend or neighbor. On the one hand, you’re hesitant to call – it will destroy your relationship, you’re afraid someone’s kids might get taken away unnecessarily, etc. On the other hand, you feel compelled to call – if you don’t and something bad happens, you’ll never forgive yourself! You’ll note how this scenario is a dilemma even before we add anyone’s religious sensibilities into the equation!
If you had a calling-CPS dilemma, you might describe the situation to a friend who’s a social worker and ask for guidance. They’re the expert and you value their insight into the matter. Similarly, if you have a non-urgent disclosure dilemma involving the laws of lashon hara, the best course of action is to ask an expert – in this case a rabbi. There are times when we may or must disclose negative information but, when we’re involved, we’re not always the best judges of those situations.
However, as we said earlier, saving someone in imminent danger takes priority. In a case of clear and present danger, appropriate protective action must be taken immediately. To save a life, we drive on Shabbos, we eat on Yom Kippur, and we don’t hesitate to reveal negative information. If your friend’s babysitter is a convicted sex offender, say something. Your neighbor’s daughter has been set up with a known date rapist? Share that information. This is even true in spiritual matters. For example, if your cousin’s new spiritual advisor is a stealth missionary, tell him.
Speaking out to save someone from danger doesn’t conflict with the laws of lashon hara any more than it does with the laws of Shabbos. Usually, we don’t drive on Shabbos; sometimes we must. Similarly, we usually keep negative information to ourselves but sometimes we must reveal it. Just as we learn when to call an ambulance (for a heart attack, not for a splinter), we have to use good judgment to evaluate when to keep quiet, when to speak up, and when to ask for guidance.
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz, JITC Educational Correspondent