Acting behind the scenes throughout the dramatic episode of Parshas Toldos, Rivka is perhaps the first biblical example of an informant.
The report of Yitzchak’s blessings opens with Rivka overhearing Yitzchak’s instruction to Esav to prepare him a meal so that he will bless him before his death. It concludes with Rivka’s warning Yaakov, after she was tipped off (the Torah does not reveal by whom) about Esav’s intention to kill his brother.
Due to her intervention, Yaakov received the parental blessing, and was also able to escape Esav by going to the home of Lavan and Betuel in Padan Aram. This matter gives us cause to continue our reflection on the laws of lashon hara, and in the present article to address the matter of the informant.
Our everyday life has cases of informing. The simplest cases involve a home setting: a candy bar went missing from the pantry, and Mommy demands to know who took it. Can a brother who happened to be at the scene of the crime, inform on his guilty sibling (and get him grounded)? At the other end of the spectrum, we have cases of criminal activity, from petty theft to child abuse, where informing counts for more. Most cases lie somewhere in between.
What are the guidelines for when it is permitted to speak out? When is there an obligation to speak, and when is it forbidden to do so?
A person who was the victim of a crime such as violence or abuse—in a home, school, or general setting—will often want to share his experience with others. A child will often want to tell his parents, a husband his wife (and vice versa), and a student his teacher, and so on. At times, there may be a concrete productive outcome; sometimes, the purpose is only the psychological desire to unburden oneself.
May the victim share his experience with others, or not?
Addressing the matter of a victim’s speaking out, the Chafetz Chaim (10:11) writes as follows:
“One should be exceedingly careful not to permit himself to tell others how he had a certain interaction with others who stole from him or cheated him in a certain way, or who cursed him or pained him or embarrassed him. Even if he knows that he is not lying [about the events] … his intention in telling surely serves no positive purpose, in that it does not cause the perpetrators to distance themselves from their evil ways. His intention is rather to degrade them in the eyes of others by publicizing that they encroached on his property or his dignity.”
However, the prohibition against speaking out applies only when a person’s “intention in telling serves no positive purpose,” and “his intention is to degrade them.” Where there is a positive intention, including protecting others from harm (4:10), preventing others from learning inappropriate behavior (4:10), shaming the subject into repenting (10:13) the Chafetz Chaim does permit speaking out. It is likewise permitted to speak out where a person needs to take advice (Be’er Mayim Chayim 10:31, based on Kesubos 69a). The Chafetz Chaim (10:14 in footnote) is not certain if a person may tell lashon hara where he feels a psychological need to unburden himself.
If one wishes to clear his own name, the Chafetz Chaim (10:17; Be’er Mayim Chayim 10:31, 43) sometimes permits telling lashon hara.
An important source for the last category—speaking lashon hara for the purpose of clearing one’s own name—is found in the Gemara (Berachos 5b), where the following anecdote is related: “Once, four hundred jars of wine belonging to Rav Huna turned sour. Rav Yehudah, the brother of Rav Sala the Pious, and the other scholars went in to visit him and said to him: `The master ought to examine his actions.’ (They considered this a punishment for a sin.) He said to them: `Am I suspect in your eyes?’ They replied: `Is the Holy One, blessed be He, suspect of punishing without justice?’ He said to them: `If somebody has heard of anything against me, let him speak out.’ They replied: `We have heard that the master does not give his sharecropper his [lawful share in the] vine twigs. He replied: `Does he leave me any? He steals them all!’ They said to him: `That is exactly what the proverb says, ‘If you steal from a thief you also have a taste of it!’’ He said to them: `I pledge myself to give it to him.’ ” Some report that thereupon the vinegar became wine again; others that the price of vinegar went up so high that it was sold for the same price as wine.”
The Chafetz Chaim explains that Rav Huna was only allowed to speak lashon hara about his tenant farmer because it was necessary in order to clear his name and the sharecropper did something which was wrong.
All these categories involve a to’eles, a positive purpose achieved by means of speaking up. Provided the conditions below are met, they are sufficient to permit lashon hara. We must stress that generally if the conditions are not met, one may not say anything even if he has good intentions.
The Seven Conditions
Before speaking out, the Chafetz Chaim (Kelal 10 seif 2) mentions seven concurrent conditions that must be fulfilled before informing. The following is a listing of the seven conditions:
- One has firsthand knowledge of the problem and is not merely repeating hearsay, or he has verified the information. In the case of a victim, this will not be an issue since he certainly has firsthand knowledge of the event.
- Careful consideration and judgment should be given to determine whether the act is actually negative or prohibited. This is especially relevant for informing other parties of a transgression—one must be sure that the transgression occurred.
- One should first rebuke the transgressor in private, in order to motivate him to change his ways. Only if one is unsuccessful in achieving his ends privately may the deed be told over to others. For a victim, this course of action is often not relevant (depending on circumstances), and will fail to achieve some of the ends a victim seeks. If the constructive purpose does not involve the subject, the condition is not relevant.
- One must not exaggerate.
- One’s intention must be for a constructive purpose, and not for personal gain or benefit. Similarly, one should not be motivated by hatred for the subject of the report. This condition is often hard to meet, and will be discussed further below.
- One must try to achieve the constructive result without speaking lashon hara, if possible.
- One may not cause more harm to the subject than he would otherwise deserve by Torah law. This condition is at times difficult to achieve, as explained below.
Do Not Stand by the Blood of Your Neighbor
Just as it is permitted for a victim to speak out when doing so serves a positive purpose, so too somebody else is permitted to speak out concerning somebody potentially dangerous or harmful, where doing so will serve a positive purpose.
Rabbeinu Yonah writes (Shaarei Teshuvah 3:221):
“And know that in interpersonal matters like theft and robbery and physical harm and shame and verbal abuse, one may tell these matters to others. Even a lone witness who observes these matters may inform, in order to help the victim and to seek truth.… However, he should first rebuke the offender.”
Each of us is obligated to prevent harm from befalling another. The Torah warns, “Do not stand by the blood of your neighbor” (Vayikra 19:16). Although the direct implication relates to physical harm, the principle applies even to financial or emotional harm (see Rambam, Sefer Ha-Mitzvos 297). When a person is able to bring about a constructive purpose by means of speaking, he is positively obligated to do so, and should be wary of holding back.
The Pischei Teshuvah (Orach Chaim 156), who was clearly concerned with overly pious individuals who are reluctant to share information, clarifies this principle in no uncertain terms:
“The Magen Avraham and the mussar books write at length concerning the prohibition of lashon hara. I have found it appropriate to write about the other side [of the coin]. There is a sin even greater than [speaking lashon hara], and one which is more widespread, namely, the sin of refraining from informing another about a situation in which one can save him from being victimized—all out of concern for lashon hara… One who behaves in this manner, his sin is too great to bear and he violates the injunction: You shall not stand by the blood of your brother.”
Based on this principle, Rav Ovadia Yosef (Yechaveh Daas, Vol. 4, no. 7) ruled that a physician is obligated to report to the Department of Motor Vehicles a patient suffering from epilepsy, in order to have his license suspended. The obligation to prevent harm overrides the prohibition of speaking lashon hara, and of doctor-patient confidentiality.
Causing Harm beyond the Law
One of the conditions mentioned by the Chafetz Chaim, and upon which he expounds at length (see Be’er Mayim Chayim, Rechilus 9:17), is that the lashon hara should not cause more harm to the subject than he would otherwise deserve by Torah law.
In many lashon hara settings, this condition is clearly difficult or even impossible to fulfill. Certainly, this will place a major obstacle in the face of informing recurrent abusers, or other non-repentant criminals to the civil authorities, who definitely won’t be judging them according to Torah law. A similar problem will apply to a broad range of cases.
Moreover, as the Chafetz Chaim himself points out, according to Torah law a person is only believed if he is male, has come of age, and gives testimony together with another person. If one of these conditions is not fulfilled, the person is not believed, and no punishment can be dispensed based on his or her testimony. Must we then assume that a woman, minor, or single man may not speak lashon hara even for a constructive purpose, because the resultant sanction (where there is one) will run contrary to Torah law?
The solution to this difficulty is given by the Chafetz Chaim himself (Be’er Mayim Chayim 10:12), who refers to the words of the Shach (himself quoting from Maharam of Rizburk):
“It is a mitzvah for every person to tell the [non-Jewish] judge, so-and-so hit so-and-so … so that he will desist from doing so. Even if the judge will confiscate all of his property, the informer is exempt from liability, for were this not so, nobody would save victims from the hand of their oppressors. Surely, if a person is permitted to save [a victim] by cutting off one of his [the aggressor’s] limbs … it is surely better that he should inform the judge, and that the aggressor should lose his money, than that he should lose one of his limbs.”
The point, which the Chafetz Chaim stresses, is that the lashon hara is being spoken in order to prevent future damage and not, for example, the purpose of retrieving stolen property. The reason is that, constructive though it may be, the goal of retrieving stolen property does not permit a person to inflict a punishment on the subject beyond what the Torah mandates. For a future to’eles, however, where there is no way of preventing future damage without causing a punishment that goes beyond Torah law, one must still speak up.
It is therefore permitted, where the conditions are appropriate, to inform in a home or school environment, and sometimes to inform the civil authorities of criminal activity that the community is unable to deal with.
The Question of Motivation
As noted above, one of the conditions mentioned by the Chafetz Chaim is that a person’s motivation in speaking lashon hara should be purely for the sake of a constructive purpose. Where a positive intention is tinged with malice or animosity, the Chafetz Chaim rules that it is forbidden to speak (Rechilus 9:2).
This condition is particularly difficult to fulfill when a person has been victimized by another. Whatever the offense, feelings of anger, resentment, and hatred, and even a desire for revenge, are normal. Under such circumstances, is it forbidden for a victim to speak up, even when doing so has a clear and important purpose such as protecting the community from repeated offense of the perpetrator?
The Chafetz Chaim (Rechilus 9:2) appears to answer this question in the positive, writing that the motivation must be purely for a constructive purpose. The judgment is based (see Be’er Mayim Chayim, Rechilus 9:28, in footnote) on a decision recorded in the Shulhan Aruch (Choshen Mishpat 421:13), whereby one who sees a person being beaten is permitted to use physical force, if necessary, to stop the attacker. Two constructive purposes are involved: 1) Helping the victim; 2) Prevent the attacker from sinning (striking another is a sinful act).
The Sema (421:28) comments that this permission is not granted if the intervener is motivated out of hatred for the attacker. In such circumstances, the intervener’s motivation is personal, and he will therefore be himself guilty of raising his hand against another.
The litmus test for motivation is the individual’s reaction in similar instances: If he always intervenes to prevent people from sinning, we can assume that the intention is pure; if he generally refrains from intervening, we can assume that he is doing so out of hatred. The Taz, however, disagrees, writing that motivation is irrelevant, and arguing that, because a mitzvah is being fulfilled, motivation is not a consideration.
This difference of opinion will seem to apply even to our question: According to the Sema, one must take the motivation of the person into account, and even where a positive purpose is achieved it remains forbidden to speak lashon hara out of negative motivations. However, according to the Taz, motivation is not the deciding factor in determining the halachah, and it would seem to be permitted to speak in any event, provided a to’eles is achieved. Nevertheless, the Chafetz Chaim rules that even according to the Taz, derogatory speech that is spoken out of personal bitterness is prohibited. The reason for this is that if the motivation for speaking is hatred and animosity, we can be sure that the other necessary conditions for permitting lashon hara, such as not exaggerating and not fearing an excessive punishment, will not be met.
Yet, even the stringent opinion of the Sema refers to a case in which a person wishes to strike his fellow man out of hatred, and not only for the constructive purpose of saving the victim or preventing sin.
In order to determine if the speech is permitted, we can make use of the litmus test mentioned by the Sema himself, namely, the speaker’s willingness to speak out in a parallel case where there is no personal involvement. If he reckons that he would not speak out in the parallel case, he can conclude that his motivations are personal, and it is forbidden to speak out; if he would speak out even in a “sterile” case without personal involvement, he can conclude that his principle motivation is for a constructive purpose, and it is permitted to speak out.
In delicate cases, a knowledgeable halachic authority should be consulted.
An important note on which to conclude is that in his Be’er Mayim Chayim, the Chafetz Chaim stresses that the question of motivation should not be used as an excuse to refrain from speaking out. The obligation to speak up, where required, remains in place—but one must seek to cleanse one’s intentions, and ensure that one’s motivation is pure.