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Informing on Others: Mitzvah or Prohibition?

Last week we began to discuss the laws of lashon hara, focusing in particular on the fact that although lashon hara is a severe issur, the prohibition is waived in circumstances of to’eles. When speaking lashon hara has a constructive purpose, it is permitted—provided a list of conditions, as detailed below, is fulfilled. Indeed, it is sometimes an obligation to speak it.

This week, we will discuss a difficult and highly practical aspect of speaking lashon hara: The question of informing.

Our everyday life is replete with cases of informing. The simplest cases are in a home setting: Somebody took a bar of candy from the closet, and Mommy demands to know who did it. Is it permitted for one of the children to inform on the guilty sibling, thereby getting him punished?

The most serious cases are informing authorities of criminal activity, such as child abuse, where the act can lead to character assassination and imprisonment. Most cases lie somewhere in between.

What are the principles that dictate whether or not it is permitted to speak out? When is there an obligation to open one’s mouth, and when is it forbidden to do so? We will not expound on the complex issue of informing civil authorities, which includes aspects that go beyond the scope of the present article. Rather, we will focus on the essential question of lashon hara itself.

The Victim

A person who is 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. In the case of a slap from a brother, he will want to tell his mother; in school, it might be the teacher, and sometimes it can involve a friend, family member, therapist, lawyer, and so on. At times, there may be a concrete productive outcome from sharing the information, but sometimes there is only the psychological drive to unburden oneself.

May the victim share his experience with others?

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.

This 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), or clearing one’s own reputation (10:17; Be’er Mayim Chayim 10:31, 43; the Chafetz Chaim expresses some doubt as to this category)—the Chafetz Chaim does permit speaking out.

An important source for the last mentioned category—speaking lashon hara for the purpose of clearing one’s own name—is found in the Gemara (Berachos 5b), where the following 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.

Rav Huna, we find, was not afraid to speak lashon hara about his tenant farmer, in order to clear his name—though the Chafetz Chaim stresses that this was only permitted because it was impossible for Rav Huna to clear his name without implicating his sharecropper. It is likewise permitted to speak out where a person needs to take advice (Be’er Mayim Chayim 10:31, based on Kesubos 69a), or where he feels a psychological need to unburden himself (10:14 in footnote).

All of these categories involve a to’eles, a positive purpose that is 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 talk up even if he has “good intentions.”

The Seven Conditions

Before speaking out, the Chafetz Chaim (Kelal 10) mentions seven concurrent conditions that must be fulfilled. The following are the seven conditions (in italics), with some short additions (non-italics) applying the conditions to the victim himself:

1. One has firsthand knowledge of the problem and is not merely repeating hearsay, or he has verified the information. A victim certainly has firsthand knowledge of the event.

2. Careful consideration and judgment should be given to determine whether or not the act is actually a prohibited one.

3. 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 in a private manner may the deed be told over to others. For a victim, this course of action is often difficult or impossible (depending on circumstances), and will not achieve some of the ends that a victim seeks. If the constructive purpose does not involve the subject, the condition is not relevant.

4. One must not exaggerate.

5. 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.

6. One must try to achieve the constructive result without speaking lashon hara, if possible.

7. 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, and will be discussed further 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 a third party is permitted to speak out concerning someone 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), and although the direct implication is to physical harm, the principle applies even to financial or emotional harm (see Rambam, Sefer Ha-Mitzvos 297). When a person is able to achieve a constructive purpose by 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 driver’s license suspended. The obligation to prevent harm not only overrides the prohibition of speaking lashon hara, but even 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 under 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 on recurrent abusers, or other non-repentant criminals, to the civil authorities, who definitely won’t judge 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 the 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, as the Chafetz Chaim stresses, is that the lashon hara is being spoken for a constructive future purpose, and not for the purpose of retrieving [for instance] stolen property.

Constructive though it may be, the purpose 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 to achieve the purpose without the incurring a punishment that goes beyond Torah law, one must still speak up.

It is therefore permitted, where the conditions are appropriate, to be a tattle-tale in a home or school environment, and in extreme cases 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 constructive purpose. Where a positive intention is tinged with malice or animosity, the Chafetz Chaim rules that it is forbidden to speak up (Rechilus 9:2).

This condition is particularly difficult to fulfill when a person has been victimized by another. Whatever the offence, feelings of anger, resentment, and hatred, and even a desire for revenge, are normal. Under such circumstances, will it be 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 affirmative, 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 would thus be himself guilty of raising his hand against another. The litmus test for motivation, according to the Sema, 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 seemingly apply also 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 is forbidden to speak lashon hara out of negative motivations. According to the Taz however, motivation is not a relevant factor in determining the halachah, and it would be permitted to speak in any event, provided a to’eles is achieved.

However, the Chafetz Chaim writes 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 causing an excessive punishment, will not be met.

Moreover, even the stringent opinion of the Sema refers to a case in which a person wishes to strike his fellow man purely out of hatred, and not for the constructive purpose of saving the victim or preventing sin. There is certainly room to understand that even if a positive motivation is mixed with animosity and hatred, this will not cancel the hetter of speaking out. The halachah appears to depend on which of the two is the principle motivation for speaking the lashon hara.

A litmus test for this issue will be a person’s willingness to speak out in a parallel case in which he has 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 would be forbidden to speak out. If he would speak out even in a case without personal involvement, he can conclude that his principle motivation is for a constructive purpose, and he is permitted to speak out.

In delicate cases, a knowledgeable halachic authority should be consulted to verify the matter.

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 seen as a reason 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 to ensure that one’s motivation is pure.

With G-d’s help we will complete the series on lashon hara next week, with a discussion of lashon hara in relation to shidduchim.

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