Exchange With David Klinghoffer – Part 2


In an earlier post, I published the sharp but friendly remarks that we traded, on camera (so to speak) and off.  I took up the challenge to offer a halachic defense of the permissibility – indeed mandate – to publicly distance ourselves from malfeasance in the community.

Please keep in mind that this is a blog, not a printed responsum.  Bloggers get to share unpolished thoughts in the hope that the criticism of others will show them if they are off base.  If your ego can’t take the beating of scores of people homing in on your mistakes, don’t blog.  What I present here are some thoughts arranged in the usual manner of a responsum, but without the careful consideration that results from taking halachic thought back to the beis medrash.  In my mind, I can only gain.  If my arguments have any merit, I will help a few people understand some Torah issues.  If I am wrong, the process will help me better understand those Torah issues.

Hey – somebody has to throw out the first ball.

I will attempt this in two parts.  This post will examine what objections there might be to take a public stand against a Jew apparently caught in some misdeed, and why they do not apply.  A later post will offer mekoros (sources) to sustain the argument that such a public stand is necessary and called for.

Here are the arguments against public condemnation, and why they do not apply:

1) Lashon Hora.    Briefly, saying anything less than complimentary about another Jew falls within the purview of this prohibition.  Saying it in a public forum, with far more listeners significantly aggravates the offense.  The prohibition applies even when what is said is entirely true.  I have a feeling that this is the journalist’s jinx that Jonathan Rosenblum alluded to in his comment on my earlier piece.

There are some exceptions to the prohibition, including something that has become public knowledge.  It is true that the Chofetz Chaim (who wrote the masterwork on the complex laws of Lashon Hora)  makes it hard to comply with the demands of  this permit.  But it is hard to imagine any situation that could possibly satisfy the demands of the law better than a story that has been unfurled by the popular media, and is still flapping in the wind atop every pole.  If a major story in Time magazine (besides hundreds of other outlets) doesn’t satisfy the requirements of the apei telasa (story conveyed to three people who will spread it to others) permit, nothing does.  A respected talmid chacham recently put it succinctly.  The first journalist to write about a story violates the prohibition; subsequent journalists do not.  It should be added that any contrition on the part of the perpetrator should be entirely irrelevant.  The permit is not based on culpability.  It simply reflects the reality that the Torah does not protect against a story that will perforce emerge anyway.

There are limitations, including intent to spread the story further than it would otherwise reach (Sefer Chofetz Chaim 1:2:3).  When this is not the case, making mention of what others can be presumed to have already heard about, however,  is not forbidden.  Those who use this permit must be careful not to add, embellish, exaggerate any details of the story.

In the case at hand, people would have to be entirely insulated from multiple media not to have heard the charges, the purported corroboration of those charges, and the high-profile public admission of guilt.  Lashon Hora, per se, should not be a bar to public discussion

2)  Public embarrassment   Publicly embarrassing someone is tantamount to killing him – according to most Rishonim (medieval commentators) in a figurative sense, according to Rabbenu Yonah in a real sense.  It is hard to see, however, that making further mention of events that millions of people are already talking about will increase the embarrassment of the perpetrator.

3) Painful speech    It is prohibited to cause pain to another though speech.  The reasoning in 2) should apply here as well.  No additional pain will be caused by statements in the Jewish community carefully distancing themselves from the inappropriate behavior.  Here it is crucial, however, to be dispassionate about the story, and heap scorn and invective upon the perpetrator.  Unusually harsh word could, in fact, cause further pain.  The only agency authorized to use such words would be a beis din, if the matter somehow became part of its purview.

4) Achieving honor through the disgrace of another    Also forbidden.  This should apply to a journalist who advances his career by doing a particularly good job of his treatment of the misdeeds of another.  It should not apply to dispassionate statements in the community that distance people from the actions of the accused.

5) Judging favorably   There is an affirmative commandment to give the benefit of the doubt.  It applies differently to people known to be righteous, average people, and known evildoers.  The extent of the evidence of wrongdoing also impacts the application of this law.

Assuming that Mr Abramoff belongs to the middle category, David Klinghoffer is in perfect compliance with halacha by insisting on not accepting the worst case explanations of the admitted misdeeds.  Even if we were to conclude (for the sake of argument) that the case against Mr Abramoff was strong, the law requires that if David sees any way not to judge him guilty, that he not absolutely conclude misbehavior.  David would be obligated, even in the face of evidence leaning towards but not demonstrating guilt, to keep the issue of guilt or innocence as a question.  (See Sefer Chofetz Chaim, Asin, #3 (in Be’er Mayim Chaim).

None of this, however, applies to the rest of us who do not know Mr Abramoff personally.  For us, there is no such legal obligation – only a praiseworthy character trait – in judging a stranger favorably.  (Rambam, cited by Sefer Chofetz Chaim ibid.)

The next post will set forth the case for making public declarations denouncing misbehavior by others.

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5 Responses

  1. Yitzchok Adlerstein says:

    Sara –
    I don’t think that the “caravans” of the Chofetz Chaim are any match for electronic media today. I believe that this is pretty much accepted by contemporary decisors. Your first learning about it through C-C does not really impact the heter. The basis of the halacha is not that everyone will have already heard by the time you speak. Rather, the permit is based on the fact that the Torah does not put a lid on information that can be predicted to reach the listener anyway, even if a ban would be in place. Once something is known to three parties who are not constrained by the laws of lashon hora, halacha treats it as heading for a wider audience. It is hard to believe that you would not have heard about the Abramoff story even had you not read C-C; the fact that you first heard on C-C doesn’t matter.

    You are right about accepting the truth of media reports. The heter allows the speaker to tell the tale; it is still forbidden to accept it as completely true, until the veracity of the story becomes clarified. Without paskening, I suspect that there are enough multiple confirmations of the basic elements of the story here, including by Mr. Abramoff, to conclude that some violation of the laws governing lobbyists was involved.

    Bob –
    “I also wonder if a person who stands to gain personally from denouncing another (e.g., by looking “good” in front of TV cameras, enhancing his/her own public image) is thereby barred from speaking out..”

    I think he/she is barred, at least according to the Chofetz Chaim. It is a conjecture built on a parallel case. One is allowed to related what otherwise would be lashon hora if there is a clear productive purpose in it (subject to many limitations). OTOH, there is an additional prohibition of speaking lashon hora when the speech serves some baser motive, like revenge, or satisfying a dislike for the object of the conversation. What happens when the two conflict, when one law prevents me from acting on my base motivation, but the listener really ought to know the information? The Chofetz Chaim rules that I may not relate the information, since I would be violating another prohibition! I suspect that he would see the same conflict here – the need to denounce, when appropriate, against the prohibition of glorifying oneself through the disparaging of another – and come to a similar conclusion.

    Ben –
    When I get around to writing that final piece, I am not going to argue that anyone should call anyone a disgrace. The behavior has to be denounced, not the person. It should also ordinarily be possible to have other people do the denouncing, not the Rav of the perpetrator, which might indeed add unnecessary pain and discomfort. More on that in the next post.

  2. ben meir says:

    I don’t find it hard to imagine a scenario where Mr. Abramoff can no longer find refuge or a sense of belonging even in a shul. How that would jive with #3 – one would definitely heaping scorn in a new sense. I want to say this as delicately as possible, but being villified in Time magazine is not the same as hearing your own Rabbi call you a disgrace.

  3. Joel Rich says:

    Hoisted on (by?) his own petard. As a community engaged in constant shmirat halashon campaigns which have left most people with the feeling that there almost all social conversations contain lashon hara (even if we don’t all live up to that standard),your average Yosselle is hard pressed to understand why it’s OK for them(journalists) but not him.

  4. Bob Miller says:

    I can think of three positive motivations that could make a Jew want to denounce another Jew in public:
    (this is not to say that denunciation for any of these reasons is OK in a specific situation)
    1. To improve the denounced Jew’s future behavior
    2. To deter other Jews from engaging in the denounced behavior
    3. To make it clear to non-Jews that Jews in general reject bad behavior (assuming that their opinion of us has serious implications)
    I wonder, though, if it is necessary for the denouncer to have confidence that the denunciation will achieve its goal.
    I also wonder if a person who stands to gain personally from denouncing another (e.g., by looking “good” in front of TV cameras, enhancing his/her own public image) is thereby barred from speaking out.

  5. sarah elias says:

    I am about as far from a talmid chacham as one can get; also, being on my lunch break at the office, I don’t have my sefer Chofetz Chaim handy for consultation. However, I seem to recall that the Chofetz Chaim limits the heter of repeating information that is well-known to people living in the same city even, he says, nowadays (or thenadays) when there are “shayarot” travelling from city to city. For what it’s worth, I live in Europe and the first I heard of the Abramoff affair was when I read about it here, in Cross-Currents.

    In addition, I am not so sure about the heter to repeat things that one hears about from the media, which are not known for their accuracy and honesty. By repeating the information, you’re implying that you have accepted the story as true: Is that permissible when your source is the none-too-honest media?