When to Spread Negative Information and When Not

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Despite What Information Wants, We Should Not Let It Be Free

Last time, we defined the two worst types of lashon ha-ra, false and true. Before he moves to the third, Rabbenu Yonah points out an extra wrong in true slander, the greater likelihood it will take root, because people are more likely to believe it [he means in a world where people care about the difference between true and false, don’t just insist whatever they want to be true must be true].

True reminders of past wrongs a person has already repented do more damage than false claims, when those wrongs should have been left fully in the past once they were dealt with [we have situations where sincere repentance does not mean the information is completely irrelevant, such as pedophilia, Gd forbid. Still, we have to be careful to share such information only where necessary, and to remember that, the embarrassing aspects of people’s pasts are not supposed to be bandied about.]

Find the Good in People

Rabbenu Yonah directs our attention to Mishlei 14;9-10, which says evilim yalitz asham, a phrase he reads differently than online translations. For him, the verse opposes speaking about what’s wrong or bad, instead of finding the good. The verse contrasts those kinds of people to yesharim, the upright, who have ratzon, good will, Rabbenu Yonah assumes because they focus on whatever good they find in others.

Kiddushin 70a makes the same distinction, people with flaws harp on flaws in others, rather than praise what could be praised, where the righteous paper over what’s wrong in favor of praising what’s right and good. He gives the example of two people passing a carcass, a person of lesser character notices and complains about the smell, a wiser person points out the white teeth.

The reason the verse gives both explains the attitude and alerts us to a significant limitation on it. Mishlei says only a person knows his/her mind/heart, so an apparent evildoer may have repented, and then it would be wrong to spread word of that person’s evil.

Unless They’re Evil

Rabbenu Yonah might seem to have taken the stand we should always find the good in people, overlook their wrongs on the assumption they were temporary lapses and likely repented. Now, paragraph 218, he advances a vital caveat: punishment for slander happens only when the person slandered generally strives to observe the Torah and fears sin, whose lusts or appetites one or a few particular times got the better of him or her. Such a person tends to repent soon after any occasion of sin.

There are people who lack fear of Gd, who take the wrong route regularly. With such people, it is a mitzvah (Rabbenu Yonah’s word, not mine) to denigrate that person, to recount his or her evil deeds, to do our best to ensure all Jews know to reject this particular evildoer and his/her deeds, and evildoers and their deeds in general.

[Today, I greatly fear our Orthodox Jewish community has a weak grip on this issue; I find myself in the berakha of shover oyevim, Who breaks the enemies, praying to Gd for greater communal clarity on who counts as evildoers and enemies of Gd’s goals in the world. Sadly, many of us no longer agree on what constitutes an evildoer. I have seen Orthodox Jews, learned and less so, dismiss people of largely good character as evildoers because they disagree with their policy positions, and in the same discussion dismiss someone else’s lifelong pattern of lying, cheating, stealing, and public fornication because the person or people promote policies they like.]

Rabbenu Yonah thinks speaking derogatorily of such people and their actions will strengthen the community’s hold on its awareness of the definition of right and wrong. The verses he quotes make the point stark: Mishlei 29;26 says the righteous detest the unjust (the verse says to’avat tzadikkim, it is an abomination of the righteous), and 8;13 says the fear of Gd is to hate evil. Sanhedrin 52a says we may say an evildoer’s ancestors were evil even if they were righteous, as a way of taking him down (and vice verse, we may say a righteous person’s ancestors were righteous, as a way of gaining him/her greater respect).

Judging Others

How we are supposed to react to others’ actions thus depends on our assessment of the person. With people well-established as righteous, we are supposed to find the merit in their actions, hunt for any way to think of an act as proper, no matter how unlikely. With those who strive to be righteous but slip sometimes or often, we also look for the better way, although if the evidence leans heavily to an act having been wrong, we can only hold it out as a matter of doubt, not yet proven.

Shabbat 127b has a series of stories where people made dubious assumptions to give a positive spin to someone else’s actions, all of them panning out, since the actor was righteous. The Talmud concludes that one who judges his/her friend in a positive way will be judged by Heaven positively. It’s a commandment in the Torah, says Rabbenu Yonah, Vayikra 19;15, judge your fellow in righteousness.

His vociferous concern with finding the good way to evaluate others’ actions when they are righteous or strive to be so makes his about face for someone who generally does not care about evil, does not put fear of Gd primary in how s/he chooses actions, more notable. For such wrongdoers, the people who see or hear of the act should always assume it is done for nefarious reasons. [He says this also in his commentary on Avot when the Mishnah says hevei dan et kol ha-adam le-kaf zekhut, judge all others to the side of merit, as does Rambam; it is the pseudo-Rashi to Avot and Sefer Hasidim who take it as a blanket requirement. So if a person of bad character gives out favors we have wanted for a long time, Rabbenu Yonah wants us to remember we should assume the bad character person is doing it for bad motives, not jump to declare how wonderful s/he is.]

Remonstration or Making Public

The person’s status also affects how a single witness to an act chooses to handle the information. Mishlei prohibits being a lone witness, since courts cannot act on the testimony of one witness (other than to obligate an oath, where relevant). The first step is to speak to the sinner him/herself (Rabbenu Yonah thinks we should do this even if there were two witnesses, since there wasn’t formal warning).

With a person who seeks to fulfill Gd’s Will, such quiet remonstration will impact the sinner, who really does want to be good and do good. With sinners for whom the values of Torah and mitzvot do not carry much weight, a pair of witnesses should inform the court, because the court can take action to bring the sinner up short, find his/her way back to proper behavior. The court will not be able to act on the testimony of a single witness, however, so such a witness should stay quiet (because it would be spreading negative information to no purpose).

Two witnesses can go to court, who will remonstrate with the sinner discreetly. Should s/he continue unchecked, public shaming is the traditional way to go [out of fashion these days in some circles, who claim it does not work, although it clearly does in many contexts].

For public sin (with no expectation it was an error or will be repented), Rabbenu Yonah permits shaming and speaking negatively. Baba Metzi’a 59a limits the prohibition of ona’at devarim, mistreating verbally, to im she-itekha be-Torah u-be-mitzvot, one who is with you in observance. One who is not can permissibly (or obligatorily) be mocked and denigrated (we today assume most sinners are not “real” sinners, because they do not know better; where we are sure they should know better, I still think Rabbenu Yonah’s rules apply).

Yoma 86b tells us to publicize the hanafim (a category we have already seen) to avoid the desecration of Gd’s Name involved—people should know such actions do not fit the Torah’s model.

Be Judicious in Spreading Negative Information About Evildoers

Rabbenu Yonah has two valuable caveats on the topic. A person who sometimes commits a particular sin should not be the one to reprimand or remonstrate with an evildoer who does it, for two reasons. First, it will be easy to assume ulterior motives, since s/he doesn’t seem to care so much about the act. Second, the person should be embarrassed to declare the negativity of acts s/he does as well.

For the lone witness to an unrepented sin, who cannot go to court, Rabbenu Yonah allows sharing it with people who trust him/her, who will take it to heart and be careful in their interactions with the evildoer.

Talebearing

The third member of the group of lashon hara speakers involves rekhilut, which Rabbenu Yonah does not define. He cites the verse that prohibits it, Vayikra 19;16, and shows the Talmud thought of it as part of lashon ha-ra because it referred to Do’eg as a ba’al lashon ha-ra, one who tells lashon ha-ra. I think the example tells us rekhilut is where a person shares true (not necessarily negative) information others may take as negative. There is nothing specifically wrong about the priests of Nov speaking with David, in this instance.

Nonetheless, spreading tales leads to increased hatred, as it did with Nov, and the next verse in the Torah warns against hating fellow Jews. The last Mishnah in the first chapter of Avot tells us the world survives because of peace among people, so stirring up trouble or fomenting hatred literally contributes to world destruction.

Often, the story reaches someone happy to use it as an excuse for violent crime, as with Do’eg telling Sha’ul. Yerushalmi Peah 1;1 points out the story shows the three types of people hurt by such talebearing, the teller (according to tradition, Do’eg’s fortunes declined radically after the incident), the listener (Sha’ul had the city of Nov killed, for which he was punished), and the targets of the story (the priest of Nov who were killed).

What Needs to Be Known and the Value ofKeeping Secrets

Rabbenu Yonah then again complicates the picture. Niddah 61a reminds us we may not accept such stories as true, nor hate the person who did whatever we were told, while we also should not completely dismiss the story. If it is true, the information might be important to our self-preservation. (He does not repeat it here, but his comments earlier about evildoers seems to me to fit, too, that an evildoer’s actions might be worth spreading regardless of whether currently obviously bad, because the information could be helpful in protecting others.)

On the other hand, not spreading unneeded information can save a generation, as the same Yerushalmi compares Sha’ul’s generation to Ahav’s. In Sha’ul’s time, the nation tended to lose its wars, where Ahav and his armies were often victorious in war, despite being regular idolaters. The secret lies in the latter generation having kept secrets, such as the fact of Ovadyah hiding a hundred prophets to save them from Ah’av’s queen’s wrath.

Acting Iago-like and planting seeds of strife is worse than any lashon hara. More, we are obligated to keep secret whatever someone wanted kept secret, even if it seems innocuous to us. To the extent a person told us news s/he did not want getting out, spreading it counts as rekhilut. It also lacks in tzeni’ut, in that it ignores the wishes of the person (a reminder tzeni’ut means general discretion more than modesty), and will eventually be real rekhilut, because this person clearly cannot control his/her tongue.

Mishlei says as much, 20;19, when it says goleh sod holekh rakhil. While we can read it to mean revealing a secret counts as rekhilut, Rabbenu Yonah here thinks it means the person who does one will almost necessarily later do the other, lack of control feeding on itself. Additionally, the verse warns us not to share our secrets with those we see spread rekhilut; to paraphrase a Dear Abby line about adultery I saw years ago, those who share information they should not, no matter what kind, will share information they should not, no matter what kind.

The three types of lashon hara tellers we have seen so far, those who spread false negative information, true negative information, and tell unnecessary tales, are the ones Sotah says will never greet the Divine Presence. Next time, we will see the lesser types of lashon hara and bring this project to a close, with some sense of what puts us out of line for greeting the Divine.

About Gidon Rothstein

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