November 28, 2023
November 28, 2023

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Lashon Hara and Abuse Cover-Ups

In the developing aftermath of the Walder debacle, there is an increasing awareness of the urgent need to speak up, loudly and unmistakably, for the victims of abuse. Together with that, and in support of that goal, is the need to speak up for the halacha, and more specifically, for the Chafetz Chaim, the most prominent spokesman for the laws of lashon hara (malicious speech).

It  has recently been widely assumed—sometimes by advocates, sometimes by detractors—that a culture of silence or of neglect towards incidents or accusations of abuse is due to the demands of the laws of lashon hara, codified in the book Chaftez Chaim, authored by Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan (1838-1933). However, studying this great work does not sustain that conclusion.

While malicious gossip, even when true, is prohibited, information that is purposeful—known as l’toelet—is not included in that category, and often is required to be shared. Although the Chafetz Chaim is perceived as one who pushed the message of “what not to say,” he is actually much clearer on this mandate of spreading purposeful, necessary information than were earlier codifiers such as Maimonides and Rabbenu Jonah of Gerondi.

A perusal of his volume yields several categories of purposeful speech relevant to situations of abuse:

First and foremost is the pressing need to protect possible current or future victims. This consideration is explicitly prescribed by the Talmud (Niddah 61a), specifically in the context of the recipient of the information. There, the Talmud admonishes that even when there is insufficient basis to fully accept a report as definitely true, one still must acknowledge the possibility that it is, and take protective measures. In the Chafetz Chaim’s formulation of the Talmudic passage—which others understand differently—there is a careful balance that must be struck. While a substantive allegation is unproven, there is nonetheless an absolute obligation to protect the vulnerable. The Torah imperative of “You shall not stand idly by on your fellow’s blood,” the other half of the verse that prohibits lashon hara is fully applicable, and must be observed. There is no contradiction to the presumption of innocence; both ideas can coexist. In the Chafetz Chaim’s understanding, the Torah demanded careful precision of action and thought: first, safeguards for the vulnerable, and also, all steps to explore the vindication of those who may be unjustly accused must be preserved.

In addition to preventing the direct infliction of harm, another category of “purpose” is the providing of psychological relief. The Talmud (Yoma 75a), interpreting a Biblical verse (Prov. 12:25), advises that “one who finds worry in his heart should discuss the matter with others.” It is the Chafetz Chaim himself who suggested that this might not only refer to the seeking of practical advice (as per the commentary of Rashi), but may also include the alleviation of mental suffering and anxiety through speaking to others (Laws of Lashon Hara 10:14, in footnote; see also 6:4.) Certainly, as it becomes more and more evident that survivors of abuse have been silenced, ignored and disbelieved, with all of the attendant anguish and isolation, providing both a voice and an ear to victims is a vital purpose.

More recently, Rabbi Yaakov Kaminetsky (1891-1986) taught (Emet L’Yaakov, Orach Chaim 156n182)  that the distress that one experiences from the knowledge that an offender goes unpunished is included in this category of purpose. In this vein, it is clear that when an abuser, whether alive or not, is not only unprosecuted but is held up as a model, the anguish this inflicts upon those who have suffered at his hands (or perhaps those like him) is genuine and demands attention.

Third, there is a purpose that is not for victims of the future or of the past, but for all of us. The Chafetz Chaim identifies a “purpose” that is not protective nor reparative, but rather declaratory: to decry acts of evil (Laws of Lashon Hara 10:4). It is necessary to make it resoundingly clear when there is behavior that must be utterly rejected by a decent, God-fearing society. To whatever extent the perception has been allowed to form that evil acts can be tolerated or excused, there emerges a greater and more urgent requirement to identify and reject that which should never have been accepted. To fail to do so is to undermine the Torah itself; the Talmud says as much: “We must publicize the hypocrites, because of the desecration of God’s Name” (Yoma 86b). As Rashi notes, otherwise, others will imitate their behaviors, and the cycle continues.

Of course, none of these justifications are simple, and the analysis of every situation requires careful judgment and investigation into the facts and the circumstances. It is true that the Chafetz Chaim set his own, rigorous protocol to determine the threshold for “purposeful” speech, and others differed, and still others interpreted the Chafetz’s Chaim’s own process as variable depending on the relevant factors (see, notably, the approbation of Rabbi Sraya Deblitsky to the work Tok’khat Chaim). Lashon hara remains a serious prohibition, capable of causing great damage, and the elements that impact its implementation are necessarily complex.

Nonetheless, one thing is clear: The precious value of lashon hara was never intended to allow evil to flourish, or to silence the oppressed. It is, by design, coupled in the Torah with the imperative to save the vulnerable. It is more protective, not less: a mandate to save body and soul, mind and psyche at once, to value all the components of humanity together. A false piety that allows suffering to exist through silence or inaction betrays the values of lashon hara more than any harsh words ever could.

Rabbi Daniel Z. Feldman is a rosh yeshiva at YU/RIETS, an instructor at the Syms School of Business, and the rabbi of Ohr Saadya of Teaneck. He is the author of six Hebrew volumes of Talmudic essays, most recently on the structure of rabbinic law, and of three English volumes, most recently “False Facts and True Rumors: Lashon Hara in Contemporary Culture.” 

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