There are other instances where listening to lashon hara may not only be allowed but it may be a mitzvah. One example is a situation where one knows that if they allow the individual to say lashon hara they could immediately follow up the gossip with a defense of the individual spoken of.
* In such a case it is the right thing to do to listen to the individual say lashon hara. Another example is if one understands that by allowing an individual to vent, one knows that they can listen and then ensure that the speaker of lashon hara will cease to share the story with others. In such a case it is also a mitzvah since by listening one is ultimately increasing peace. In either case, one is forbidden to believe the lashon hara as fact.
* One can use this tool to retroactively fix lashon hara that was mistakenly listened to. Meaning, if one slips and listens to lashon hara they could erase the sin by trying to find any way possible to excuse the individual being spoken of by suggesting alternate understandings of what happened or arguing on the facts.
Although we discussed earlier that listening to lashon hara is forbidden, the Chafeitz Chaim qualifies that principle. It is only forbidden to join others who are speaking lashon hara. If however one joins a conversation and in mid-conversation the topic changes to lashon hara, one has a few options before them. Ideally, one should get up and leave or cover one’s ears. The Chafeitz Chaim acknowledges that this is not always so simple to do; whether due to practical concerns or because leaving will make one to be the object of scorn. In such a case, one must follow three rules. 1) Do not accept anything that is being spoken as fact. 2) Do not enjoy the conversation. 3) Do not encourage the speaker, whether verbally or through body language, to continue speaking.
Tip of the Week #3
As this last law so clearly demonstrates, one of the challenges of lashon hara is being true to oneself and not being swept up by peer pressure. Everyone else may be participating in lashon hara and to stay out of it requires a great deal of self knowledge, self control and self confidence. This week’s tip is to not lose sight of the fact that situations where other people are speaking lashon hara are incredible opportunities to work on building one’s strength of character. Don’t look at such a situation as an obstacle course to get around transgressing these cumbersome laws, but rather a great opportunity to build one’s self.
Public Service Announcement
Two weeks ago, I encouraged you, the readers of this blog me to abstain from speaking/listening to lashon hara one hour a day as a team effort. I will be designating hours in the next two weeks. If you haven’t signed up – it’s not too late!
If one hears negative information about someone else that was shared in a casual fashion AND there is no way to interpret the information in a positive light AND the one sharing the information knows this information from first-hand knowledge, it is permitted to believe him/her. Even in situations where it is permitted to believe the information, it is still forbidden to share the information with others.
We will begin to discuss when it is permitted to speak negatively about others. The underlying principal is that if the discussion is for a constructive purpose it is permitted. The first question one has to ask themselves before having a ‘constructive conversation’ (as opposed to lashon hara) is, is the information I am about to share 100% accurate? There is a mitzvah to judge others favorably which means that an ambiguous situation which could be interpreted in more than one way, must be interpreted in a favorable fashion. If a person saw or heard something that can be interpreted in a positive way or a negative one and decides to interpret the situation in a negative fashion and shares this information with others – even if it is done for a constructive purpose, it is still forbidden.
What exactly constitutes a constructive purpose and what other conditions must be met will be discussed in later posts.
The Chafeitz Chaim next deals with the proper steps one must take to repent from speaking lashon hara. Typically, a sin that is between an individual and G-d, one must only ask G-d for forgiveness, and a sin between an individual and another, one must ask G-d and the individual forgiveness. The Chafeitz Chaim states that lashon hara is no exception. Since an individual was harmed in some way through lashon hara (whether it was a financial loss or a diminished stature in the eyes of those who believed the lashon hara) forgiveness must be sought from the one who was spoken of. However, there are others who argue that in a situation where the one spoken of is unaware that lashon hara was spoken of him/her, since more harm than good will come out of informing them, one can therefore forego asking them forgiveness.
If one is interested in going into business/dating an individual, or really any interaction where complete knowledge of the other party is necessary, it is permitted to ask people what they know about the individual. Since it is being done for a constructive purpose and not for the sake of sharing gossip, it is permitted.
However, one should make sure to inform the one asked as to why you need this information. (You need not tell them the exact details but they must know that this is for a constructive purpose and it is not gossip.) This is because if the one who is sharing the information does not realize that it is permitted they are violating the prohibition of lashon hara by sharing this information, since from their limited perspective there is no positive purpose in sharing this information.
We learned previously that even when we witness someone transgress a prohibition it is forbidden to share this information with others unless the person is acting deliberately in spite of constant warnings. That being said, there is an exception to this rule. It’s an exception that necessitates real intellectual honesty. The Chafeitz Chaim teaches us that a person’s intent in speaking negatively about others makes a big difference. Sharing information for the sake of gossiping or slandering is forbidden. However, if one uses an individual who displays a certain negative characteristic, as an example to teach one’s student, child, or anyone they can influence, the Chafeitz Chaim states that this is permitted. This type of negative speech does not fall under the category of lashon hara. Again, intellectual honesty is required and one has to make sure that they
are using this individual as an example with the right intent.
What if a person clearly knows they are doing something wrong and it is clear that the individual simply does not care? In such a case, says the Chafeitz Chaim, it is permitted to publicize their behavior. A classic example is a scenario where a court summons an individual to stand on trial and he/she refuses a number of invitations. In such a case, it is permitted to publicize this information.
*On that topic, many of you may have received a paper in the mail informing you of an individual in our community who was summoned to court and refused to come – the Baltimore Beis Din has made clear that that specific declaration is not legitimate and should be disregarded.
We discussed yesterday how even if one knows for a fact that someone committed a transgression this does not mean that it is permitted to share this information with others. Rather, if there is reason to believe that he/she is still committing this transgression, one should try to speak to him/her and attempt to persuade them not to do the act again.
If there is reason to believe that he/she will not listen that us still not grounds to share the information with everyone. Rather, the information should be shared with someone who he/she will be influenced by, like a family member or a rabbi.
There are times when sharing negative information about others is allowed. As we discussed yesterday, even if one knows that someone transgresses a certain prohibition, there are some mitzvos that people are simply unaware of. To publicly denounce them for violating such commandments would be forbidden.
This would seem to indicate that if it is a mitzvah that everyone is aware of then it would be permitted. Not so fast, says the Chafeitz Chaim. We all slip up and people make mistakes. It is possible, he argues, that the person who did whatever it is we witnessed them do has changed their ways. To publicize what they have done would not only serve no purpose but be wrong. (We are not discussing a situation where a person is a potential threat to others. There are other considerations to take into account for such scenarios.)
A good example of this is something that made headlines in Jewish publications recently. A certain Jewish publication published findings of their own private investigation – they discovered that a certain prominent scholar in Judaic studies used a pseudonym to post comments on-line and in journals to defend and praise his own works. This was obviously unethical behavior and totally inappropriate for a scholar of any kind, most definitely of Jewish studies. However, this scholar had ceased using this pseudonym a while back. He clearly had felt, whether it was from remorse or fear of being caught, that it was not a good idea. For the newspaper to publish such information is a clear violation of the lashon hara discussed above.