Quite a number of years ago, I received a call from a single woman who told me that a former roommate informed her as she was leaving the shared apartment for the last time, that she was not a Jew. She explained that she was a conversion candidate and posed as an observant Jew in order to learn how to live as a Jew. The woman who called now had to deal with a host of Halachic issues, especially the Kashrut standards of her and her two remaining apartment mates residence. In our last issue, we set forth why it was necessary to Kasher almost all of the cooking utensils in the apartment. This week we shall deal with the question of whether she should inform the local rabbinate of the former roommate’s deceitful behavior.
The Severe Prohibition of Lashon HaRa
The Rambam (Hilchot De’ot 7:1-6), outlines three general categories of prohibited speech: Rechilut (telling stories about another even if they are true and contain nothing negative), Lashon HaRa (spreading true negative facts about others), and Motzi Shem Ra (spreading false negative information). In order to emphasize the severity of gossiping about others, he writes, “It is a severe sin and causes the destruction of many lives.” He proceeds to cite a passage from the Gemara (Arachin 16b) that equates one who speaks Lashon HaRa with one who rejects the existence of God. The Gemara further compares Lashon HaRa to murder, adultery, and idolatry combined.
Elsewhere, the Gemara indicates just how restrictive the prohibition of Lashon HaRa can be (Yoma 4b). It rules that if someone shares information with a friend, the friend may not repeat it without receiving express permission to do so. As a source for this principle, the Gemara refers to the manner in which God spoke to Moshe in the opening verse of VaYikra, “Hashem spoke to [Moshe] from the Tent of Meeting to say (Leimor) [to the children of Israel].” We see that God explicitly authorized Moshe to repeat what He had told him, implying that, absent this authorization, Moshe would have been forbidden to tell the nation what he heard from Hashem.
Moreover, the Gemara (Sanhedrin 31a) teaches that a judge who informs a litigant that he voted against the majority opinion when a Beit Din (rabbinic court) issues a split decision, violates the prohibition of Rechilut. The Gemara adds that Rabi Ami once expelled a student from the Beit Midrash (religious study hall) for revealing a secret twenty-two years after it occurred.
Unfairly Harming a Shidduch
A prime area of concern for Lashon HaRa is in the context of Shidduchim (potential marriage partners). In some cases, revealing a flaw to someone’s prospective spouse or parents-in-law clearly constitutes Lashon HaRa. Dayan Weisz (Teshuvot Minchat Yitzchak 6:139) forbids someone from telling his friend that a prospective groom for the friend’s daughter committed a grave sin in his youth. Dayan Weisz explains that, as far as was known, the young man had never repeated his sin and instead devoted his time to Torah study, so his past sin did not reflect traits or habits that remained with him and might negatively impact his marriage.
Certainly, one may not exaggerate minor flaws in a manner that unnecessarily harms a Shidduch. The Chafetz Chaim (in a section added to Hilchot Isurei Rechilut 9) decries the fact that people often tell a young woman’s family about her prospective groom’s personality in a manner that depicts him in an unfairly negative light. Specifically, the Chafetz Chaim comments that people routinely describe young men as simpletons or fools simply because they lack the sharpness to outsmart sly individuals. Such a portrayal sometimes causes a young woman’s family to reject a particular candidate, even though his “foolishness” reflects admirable honesty, and he might in fact possess other intellectual gifts. Those who talk about such a person as a fool, thus focus on an extremely minor shortcoming, which should not affect the Shidduch, and exaggerate it to the point where it prevents a potentially wonderful husband from finding a wife.
“Do Not Stand Idly By”
Despite the severity of speaking Lashon HaRa, one is sometimes permitted or even obligated to reveal others’ flaws. The Rambam (Hilchot Rotzeiach 1:14) writes: “Whoever can save another individual [from an assailant] and fails to do so violates the Torah’s prohibition, ‘Lo Ta’amod Al Dam Rei’echa’, ‘Do not stand idly by while your brother’s blood is being shed’ ( VaYikra 19:16). Similarly, if one sees someone drowning in the sea or sees that robbers are attacking him or a wild animal is pouncing on him, and one can save him... but fails to do so... one violates this prohibition.”
The Shulchan Aruch (Choshen Mishpat 426:1) cites this passage from the Rambam almost verbatim. Consequently one must balance the prohibitions of Rechilut and standing by idly, by not revealing insignificant flaws while also not remaining silent about major flaws. The Netziv (Ha’ameik Davar, VaYikra 19:16) explains that Hashem placed the prohibitions of Rechilut and standing by idly in the same verse in order to clarify when one should not speak Rechilut. Their juxtaposition indicates that despite the prohibition to gossip, one nevertheless may not remain silent about information that can save another person from danger.
The Chafetz Chaim’s Guidelines for When Lashon HaRa is Permitted
In accordance with the above passages from the Rambam and Shulchan Aruch, the Chafetz Chaim (ibid.) rules that one must reveal a serious flaws to those who might be negatively impacted. However, he cautions that one must first determine that the flaw in question warrants revelation (ibid., Be’er Mayim Chaim 8). In a number of places, the Chafetz Chaim lists several criteria for judging whether one may divulge information (Hilchot Isurei Rechilut 9 and Hilchot Lashon HaRa 10:2). Based on his criteria, one should examine six points before revealing any questionable information:
1) Is one certain that the information is completely true?
2) Is the flaw so significant that the parties involved must hear about it?
3) Does one intend to reveal the information purely to help those who must hear about it, or do malicious or vengeful desires taint one’s motivation?
4) Will the information likely affect those who hear it? If they will most probably ignore the news anyway, then one may not reveal it.
5) Is one presenting the information accurately? One may not exaggerate the information at all.
6) Does any alternative exist to achieve the desired goal without revealing the information?
Application to the Conversion Candidate
In addition to the insensitivity shown by the conversion candidate to her apartment mates, she had a Jewish boyfriend about whom she did not inform the Beit Din. I concluded that since this woman exhibited considerable disrespect towards the Beit Din and the three women, it is both appropriate and necessary for the women to inform the Beit Din about the conversion candidate’s behavior in regards to the roommates and about the boyfriend. The Beit Din, in turn, would then shoulder the responsibility to process this information and decide how to proceed in this case. I cautioned the women, though, that their report to the Beit Din should not be done out of revenge for the mistreatment they received at the hand of this woman (consistent with the aforementioned guidelines of the Chafetz Chaim), but solely for the sake of the integrity of the conversion process.
Lashon HaRa is a very serious matter. Experience indeed teaches that, as taught in Mishlei (18:21,) Mavet VeChaim BeYad HaLashon - life and death are in the hand of the tongue. Nonetheless, in certain limited circumstances Lashon HaRa is warranted and mandated. Moreover, conversion candidates are to be treated with utmost flexibility, sensitivity and kindness as modeled by Hillel (Shabbat 31a). However, “Eizehu Mechubad? HaMechabeid Et HaBeriyot”, “Who is respected? Those who respect others” (Avot 4:1). The machinations and manipulations of this particular candidate could not and should not, in my opinion, be ignored. It was a rare situation where Lashon HaRa was necessary. It is hoped that the Beit Din effectively addressed these concerns with this woman, and that she took the words to heart to become a valued and contributing member of our people.
The word Leimor could also be translated as “saying,” but here the Gemara interprets it as “to say.”
We have followed the Maharsha’s explanation of this derivation (Yoma 4b s.v. Shehu). Also see Rashi (Yoma4b s.v. Shehu), who offers a different explanation. For a summary of the need for permission to repeat what one heard from another person, see Rav Michael Taubes’s The Practical Torah (pp. 212-213)
Dayan Weisz restricts his ruling to a situation of a one-time sin, which has not affected the groom’s basic character. In the same responsum, he also discusses whether to reveal that a prospective groom repeatedlysinned if he has since repented, as well as what to do when the friend does not know if the groom has repented.
This insight is also attributed to the Netziv’s grandfather-in-law, Rav Chaim of Volozhin (cited in Teshuvot VeHanhagot 1:879).