Tuesday, July 14, 2015

When Lashon Hara is a Mitzvah

A while ago - I forget the details - I was telling some people about how a certain person posed a harmful influence. One person objected that this was lashon hara. When I pointed out that it was leto'eles, for public benefit, this person argued that it is still only permissible if the speaker's motivations are pure. Since my motivations were suspect, then it was not permissible.

Now, the first observation to be made here is that Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan's "Laws" of lashon hara are not "laws" in the same sense as the laws of Shabbos found in the Shulchan Aruch. A must-read on this topic is Benjamin Brown's "From Principles to Rules and from Musar to Halakhah: The Hafetz Hayim’s Rulings on Libel and Gossip," which you can read at this link. Furthermore, while the Chafetz Chaim's conclusions became the standard for much of the Orthodox community, this was primarily simply due to his being the first person to systematically discuss the topic.

But what about within the parameters of the Chafetz Chaim's framework? Is it truly forbidden to warn people of someone's faults if one's motivations are not pure? Surely this makes no sense - why should these other people be put in harm's way just because of one's own shortcomings?

If we look at the Chafetz Chaim's discussions of this topic, an interesting discrepancy can be seen. When discussing the laws of lashon hara and cases where it is permitted in order to help others, he lists purity of intent as being an essential condition (Hilchos Lashon Hara 10:2). But later, when discussing the laws of rechilus (tale-bearing) and cases where it is permitted in order to help others (Hilchos Issurei Rechilus 9:2), while he likewise lists pureness of intent as being an essential condition, there is a footnote to his Be'er Mayim Chaim commentary. In the commentary, he notes that even if one does not have purity of intent, one must nevertheless still relate the rechilus. After all, we are discussing a case where it is in order to help others from being harmed, and there is a mitzvah of Lo Ta'amod Al Dam Re'echa, not to stand by when someone is going to be hurt. Rather, he says, when describing purity of motive as a requirement, he means that one should try as much as possible to focus on doing it for positive purposes.

Now, why did the Chafetz Chaim not make this same point in discussing cases where it is permitted to state lashon hara? I don't know, but it seem very clear that it should equally apply. Perhaps it was simply an oversight. (Alternately, looking carefully at the Chafetz Chaim's language in discussing lashon hara, it seems to me that he is talking about having proper motive insofar as assessing that there is a genuine chance of helping people, not in terms of one's inner motives. If I am correct, this is something that has been lost in the ArtScroll translation.)

One who sees the Chafetz Chaim's work as being a halachic work like the Shulchan Aruch will probably not apply this principle (that purity of motive is not an essential condition) to lashon hara, since the Chafetz Chaim didn't mention it there. But one who sees the concept of permitted and forbidden speech as being a rational matter of creating a moral society will likewise apply this principle to cases of permitted lashon hara. If it's a matter of stopping someone from harming others, then it doesn't make a difference what your personal motives are (except insofar as giving reason to doubly check that it really is a matter of stopping someone from harming others).

It is extraordinary that the works of the Chafetz Chaim, intended to make the world a better place, have often been used to make the world a worse place. Sometimes it is people not giving over harmful information about a shidduch, sometimes it is people not reporting dangerous behavior in a rabbi, sometimes it is people trying to quell frank discussion about social policies. The Torah's principles of speech are supposed to improve society. We have to use our sechel in applying them.

31 comments:

  1. Maybe he considered rechilut more chamur, so it's a kal v'chomer to lashon hara? I'm only guessing as to both halves of that statement.

    (Interesting point: In modern Hebrew, "lashon lara" is defamation, what is called "motzi shem ra" in halakha. "Rechilut" is celebrity gossip. The defamation law is actually called "Lashon Hara," and even the Supreme Court sometimes turns to the Chafetz Chaim for guidance on new issues, like internet comments. Newspaper gossip columns are called "Rechilut.")

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  2. Is negative but useful information about somebody lashon hara that is permitted, or is lashon hara only telling negative information for no significantly constructive purpose?

    The difference is much like the questions asked about saving a life on Shabbos -- is it a circumstance where violating Shabbos is outprioritized (dechuyah) or is it not even a violation of Shabbos (dechuyah)? The difference being the effort one needs to invest to minimize the violation.

    Similarly here... if revealing helpful information is permissible LH, we should be looking to avoid the problem, to see if things could be done in other ways (Noachide Law permits LH), etc...

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    1. I think you meant "hutra" in the second parenthetical.

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    2. "אמרה תורה חלל עליו שבת אחת כדי שישמור שבתות הרבה"

      חלל

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  3. I wonder how a poseik (and HKB"H) weighs a definite violation of a clear lo taamod with a questionable violation of a achronic lashin hara?
    She-nir'eh et nehamat Yerushalayim u-binyanah bi-mherah ve-yamenu,
    Joel Rich

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    1. a questionable violation of a achronic lashin hara

      Please study the CC's source before you categorize it as achronic.

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    2. Yosaif, I think that you mistook "achronic" for "anachronistic" (I also was confused the first time through). I believe that Joel Rich intended "non-chronic" as in a person who is not habitually telling Lashon Hara, as this is something that merits possible exclusion from Olam Habah.

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    3. @Joel Rich, please hold while we follow through what you might have meant :)

      If you meant "non-chronic" or "only once", as David surmises, then, all else being equal, a sin done "only once" is serious enough and can't be papered over. Besides, which ever way you go you're violating the losing precept "only once", so both sides share that alleged weakness.

      If you meant what David thinks I meant... I don't know well enough what I meant to be able to comment on that! :)

      If you meant achronic as opposed to rishonic, geonic, Talmudic, as I think you did then, as I said, we have to study the CC's source. We might find strong or explicit proof to his opinion in one of those other categories of source so his opinion won't merely be אחרון-ic.

      As a matter of fact, I was under the impression that there was biblical proof to this from Yehu being punished for DOING what the navi commanded him, but doing it with the wrong motive. But I can't find it now and I may be wrong.

      So anyway, which is it? :)

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  4. I couldn't agree more, and I can cite two examples where this has been especially problematic.

    The first example is when a prominent Jew is accused of a serious crime. I don't need to name anyone, but I'm sure we all know of at least one or two examples. Most of the time, it seems that the Jewish community refuses to investigate the charges, to the point where to an outsider it seems like a coverup. When I've asked why this happens, the response I usually get is "lashon hara". I understand the critical need to avoid damaging someone's reputation in the face of an accusation that is not yet known to be true or false, but I don't understand how this argument can be used to not discretely investigate the charges. If the person is innocent, then the proof should be discovered and recorded, in order to correct the public record, should the accusation become public. And if the person is guilty, the community has an obligation to prosecute the person.

    My second example is kashrut. I'm sure we've all been in the uncomfortable position of asking a rabbi if some hechsher is acceptable or not. When the answer is "no", we want to know why (at least I do), but most of the time, when I ask, the rabbi won't tell me, claiming that it would be "rechilus". The logic here fails me. If you're concerned about damaging someone's reputation, surely that would have happened as soon as you said that their hechsher is not acceptable. If the person is running a slipshod operation, we should know this in order to protect others and to influence him into cleaning up his business. If he is trustworthy but is acceptable because he follows the opinion of a different community that is incompatible with ours, then it's even more important to know because it removes any possible stigma from the rejection.

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    1. The Jewish community doesn't really need to investigate the crime, because it's out of their hands completely...

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  5. You wrote: "Sometimes it is people not giving over harmful information about a shidduch." A common habit among yeshiva-educated people is to use two-word verbs, e.g., "give over." A much better alternative is this instance would be "relay." (You need not post this comment. I wrote it only because I value your writings.)

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  6. I am not sure that the Chafetz Chaim requires 100% pure intent. He says that the speaker of the lashon hara should intend that it be for a to'eles, and not to derive pleasure from the flaw he attributes to the protagonist or because of hatred that he once had toward him. Hence, absent ulterior motives of this nature, speaking lashon hara l'toeles could well be permissible.
    This is the lashon of the Chafetz Chaim:
    שיכווין לתועלת, ולא כדי להנות מהפגם שנותן בחבירו, ולא מפני שנאה שיש לו עליו מפעם

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  7. "I hate to say it, but I will. [Among] the people I've spoken to on the phone, the people who know the laws of lashon hara the best are the molesters. More than once, three times you should know, three times in the past year I told people that if you move into this neighborhood, I'll have a hundred people in front of your house that first day protesting. And [one caller] said 'Lashon Hara!' and he had lots of klalos and misheberachs and all of a sudden the laws of lashon hara were so clear [to him]: 'You can't talk about this!'"
    - Rabbi Ron Yitzchok Eisenman, mora d'asra of Cong. Ahavas Yisrael of Passaic NJ, bravely moderating a 26 September 2009 panel discussion with victims of abuse.

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  8. Rav Eliezer Berkowitz emphasized that inner motivation is not the main thing,...it is the external act. I find this to be encouraging because when I give tzedakah or do an act of hesed I am always wondering if I am really doing this to help the person receiving it or because I love the mitzvot or ultimately because it is good for ME in some cosmic sense. The point is that it really doesn't matter. However, R. Berkowitz says by doing as much hesed as possible or repeatedly giving tzedakah we are training our souls to be more sensitive and purity of motive will eventually come to be the dominant motivation. Halacha is a way of training the Jewish soul to achieve spiritual growth and advancement.

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  9. The correct reading of the Chafetz Chaim is that purity of intent is relevant only to the type of lashon hara leto'eles of denigrating evildoers in general. In other words, if one is going to talk about the evil others do for the purpose of having this behavior be frowned upon, the Chafetz Chaim rules that one may do so only if the speaker does not act in the same manner. With regard to the other form of to'eles, saving someone from harm, this requirement is not in place (for a full discussion, see Nesivos Hachaim and Chelkas Binyamin).

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    1. Could you link to the relevant pages in Nesivos Chaim and Chelkas Binyomin?

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  10. IMHO, the Chafetz Chaim was concerned that a person not acting out of pure motives would exaggerate the faults of the person about whom he is talking. If so, it would then be a case of what is more important, not actively causing undue harm to the person being discussed or not passively allowing the person who needs to be warned to come to harm. This is why a live, accessible rav is needed in addition to books (obviously before a person can ask a question he must know that he has a question).

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  11. I think one of the explanations for the heavy focus on hilkhos lashon hara in the haredi world is that it can be used to stifle freedom of speech. These laws are used (wrongly) to confer immunity from criticism on haredi leaders (politicians and rabbis). On the other hand, haredi organs such as Yated Neeman routinely spout the most vituperative sort of criticism of its enemies on the basis that these halachos do not apply to evildoers, being anyone who doesn't tow the party line.
    I think these halachos are also sometimes invoked to maintain cognitive dissonance amongst those who suspect that the rosy facade of haredi life may only be skin deep.

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  12. Rav Eidensohn of Daas Torah fame has also noted that the the Chofetz Chayim transformed the suggestions of Loshon Horo into the laws of Loshon Horo. Regardless it seems they have been accepted as a standard of Orthodox behaviour, just like men wearing head coverings at all times is no longer questioned.
    What's interesting isn't that phenomenon. It's that when certain Orthodox communities feel threatened they have no hesitation to cast aside the purity of intent provision when engaging in loshon horo against their perceived enemies.

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  13. Who are the authorities who have put this (mis)interpretation of the Chafetz Chaim into writing, saying that the speaker's motivations must be pure? Does anyone know the decisive voices have been in helping to make this interpretation so widespread?

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    1. If you study the sources that the CC cites you'll see why many were convinced.

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  14. It is extraordinary that the works of the Chafetz Chaim, intended to make the world a better place, have often been used to make the world a worse place.

    It's horrendous but not extraordinary. Virtually all good rules can and are misapplied beyond their boundaries. What's a better rule than being humble? Yet "the humility of RZB"A destroyed our home and burned our palace and exiled us between the nations." This obligation itself to listen to Lashon Hara Letoeles was transgressed by Gedaliah and caused his own death and the death of others.

    The saving grace for all these rules is that on average they are very good.

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  15. In cases of when it is believed that relating about others is advisable, the importance is in having accuracy of the details and the facts. One inaccurate word can change e.g. someone's innocent mistake into a deliberate malicious act and paint that person as being worse than he actually is.

    When a person has ulterior motives or having impure motivations, the accuracy of their accountability of the facts may suffer, not only harming the subject unnecessarily, but possibly causing the listener in doing themselves harm by them failing to act appropriately or by them acting inappropriately.

    Being that we can not look into a person's heart to see one's true motivations, leaves us with no alternative other than to listen, and to judge the subject as favorably as possible without putting ourselves in harm's way. This is what not listening to lashon hara means to me, as opposed to stifling the speaker.
    o

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  16. All societies, across all times and places, have convenient little phrases that are used to stifle debate. In our society its "lashon hara", or, at times, "apikorsis." In American society, its "racist-misogynist-homophobe." (Or, if you are on the other side of the ledger, its "patriotism.") Sometimes, in each one of the examples just cited, the accuser may actually be correct. The key - again, as in all times and places - is not to be concerned with what the other thinks, while balancing that with a mix of sechel and propriety.

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  17. Since my motivations were suspect, then it was not permissible.

    Now, the first observation to be made here is that…


    Really the first observation to be made here, the elephant in the room, is that he has to provide a basis to his assumption that your motives were suspect. Also, if your motives were *prohibited* then it would be *prohibited*; since your motive was merely *suspect*, so we can *suspect* that it was prohibited. Furthermore, if you or anyone in the group decided that your motivation was clean so you were allowed to say it and they were allowed to listen to it. Whoever decided that your motivation was prohibited was prohibited to listen; whoever decided that your motivation was suspect had to suspect that it was prohibited to listen. Your challenger was imposing his opinion on you and the whole group.

    Surely this makes no sense - why should these other people be put in harm's way just because of one's own shortcomings?

    This argument is valid, and verily so, to determine the Halachah. Faced with the need to choose one of two possible Halachic choices, one chooses the most sensible one. But if (in theory) the Halachah unequivocally requires one not to interfere in the course of events, that only means that G-d absolved the person from becoming involved. G-d pushes the person who is trying to help out of the picture and will either see to it that the person in danger will be helped in some other way (i.e., the harmer will change his mind, or someone with a pure motive will warn him, or ...), or will see to it that he will be harmed!

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  18. When the C'C writes about "purity of purpose" he's not talking about himeldike kavanahs. Chofetz Chaim isn't a mussar sefer, it's a practical guide to avoid committing the issur d'Oraisah for rechilus and it's gedarim such as lashon harah. "purity of purpose" simply means no ulterior motive. The idea that someone's motive are "suspect" is balderdash. Only the speaker knows what his (or her) motives are. Here's and example: If I tell a friend who asked about it that Reuvein's laundry over starches my shirts and doesn't always have my stuff ready when he promised, that's l'toeles and since I don't know Reuvein from adam and certainly bear him no animosity, that's purity of purpose. It's as simple as that.

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  19. The basic difference between Lashon Horo and Rechilus must be explained. Loshon Horo is damaging information, words that will cause pain to person about whom it is being told. Rechilus is something that will cause the listener to change his opinion about the person being spoken about. They are not the same. They can sometimes overlap but they are not equal.
    Now Lashon Horo is by its definition evil. The only way to change that is by pure motivation and benefit to all. Rechilus is only evil if it is destructive. That is why motivation is irrelevant.

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  20. The reason why he only mentions it later in hilchos rechilus ,is because they are 2 different cases ,in Loshan Horah we are talking about after he did the bad thing, and we are trying to make him change his ways ,as opposed to Hilchos Rechilus where he is beforehand which is a clear" Lo Saamod al Dam", this is mentioned in "beer mayim chaim" in Hilchos Rechilus 16 with regards to the other difference that one doesn't need to see it with his own eyes in order to tell his friend.

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  21. I do not think that the Chafetz Chaim meant to stifle necessary debate. Rather in the conflict between freedom of speech and the press and the right to privacy he came down squarely on the side of privacy. That is to say, to discuss issues and not personalities. In this time when the press hides behind the value of freedom to destroy people for no good reason we might well follow Rambam's advice and go to the opposite side in order to regain a balance.

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  22. Which statement in 10:2 are you referring to?

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  23. Dear Rabbi Slifkin,

    I eventually re-read this post now. First, why H"H demands pure motivations for "lashon ha-ra" and not for "rachilut". Looking glance the distinction is clear: since "lashon ha-ra" is much stronger prohibition it demands extra conditions. Second, I believe the critique should be addressed to your opponent rather than to H"H. He suspects whether your intentions are pure. So what? Isn't he obliged to think about you (as you are religious Jew either) in the better way ("ladun le-kaf zhut")? Since there is suspicion only, with no clear evidence, it shall be ignored. I hereby suspect how much your opponent's intentions were pure :-)

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