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.
The Chafeitz Chaim goes on a small tangent to discuss the laws of b’tzedek tishpot amisecha, judging another favorably. There are times when it would be justified to share negative information about an individual to pressure the person to stop doing what they are doing. Before doing so, one has to ascertain that they are committing the act with malicious intent. Meaning, even if one is 100% sure that they have witnessed a certain event, it is still possible that the person doing the event is not aware that this is actually a prohibition. This is included in the commandment to judge another favorably.
(Often times people assume judging others favorably is a commandment to be naive. For example, if you see someone buying a cheese burger at McDonald’s and biting into it, people assume that judging favorably would mean that we should assume that the individual switched the cheese burger with a Glatt Kosher burger with tofu cheese in the blink of an eye. The Torah does not expect us to turn off our minds. What we learn from the Chafeitz Chaim’s law above is that judging favorably is more applicable to a case of someone speaking during parts of the prayers when talking is forbidden. One knows exactly what happened, he just witnessed someone speaking in an appropriate time. Judging favorably means that we assume the person is not a bad person, in this scenario, maybe he didn’t know it’s the wrong thing to do.)
Weekly Tip #2
Since we have been and will be discussing judging people favorably for the next little while, I will share this important insight. Imagine someone told you that someone you do not like did something terrible. Imagine what your reaction would be. Now imagine someone telling you that the person who did that same act was really your spouse/mother/father/son/daughter. Did you have a very different reaction? Were you able to come up with possible justifications for what this individual thought they witnessed your loved one do?
We are constantly interpreting facts that we see and hear about. Inasmuch as we hate to admit it we are all jaded to our preconceived notions. If I do not like someone then the things I see the person do will be interpreted in a negative light and the opposite is true for someone we love and respect. That being said, judging another person favorably is not as challenging as we think it to be. Any time we see someone do something that seems wrong, or hear that someone did something wrong, imagine that person to be your spouse/parent/child. Revisit the story and allow yourself to almost naturally judge the individual in a totally different light.
It goes without saying that discussing a person’s not so amazing past is also forbidden. Although at times the context would imply that the statement is positive, such as, “Look how far he/she has come. Do you know what he/she used to do?” such statements are still forbidden because they mention the individual’s negative past.
Even mentioning that a person violates a prohibition that people don’t take so seriously (like lashon hara!) is still lashon hara.
How broad is the prohibition of lashon hara? Very broad.
The first and most famous episode of lashon hara in the Torah is Miriam speaking negatively about her brother. She did not speak out of hatred, or malice. On the contrary, the little bit that we do know about the relationship between Miriam and her brother Moshe indicates that they had a loving relationship. Furthermore, her lashon hara did not affect Moshe in any way. Nonetheless, she was punished for speaking lashon hara. We see from here, says the Chafeitz Chaim, that even ‘joking around’ by poking fun at someone’s negative behaviors etc. is still a violation of lashon hara. Similarly, anytime one speaks negatively about another person even if the conversation will not affect the subject in any way, it is still forbidden.
*A number of people reached out to me for abstaining from lashon hara for an hour a day. You can do it too! Anyone else interested in joining this amazing opportunity to perfect the way we speak?