Ethics: "Outing" an adulterer. Part Two.

In response to my post last week, "Outing" the Adulterer (Part One) Dale D. asked how to avoid Lashon Hara (“evil tongue/evil speech”) when fulfilling this mitzvah.

Here are three questions we should ask ourselves before “Outing” someone:

  1. AM I CERTAIN THAT WHAT I AM ABOUT TO SAY IS TRUE?

The Torah insists on truth. 

Do not bear false witness.  (Exodus 20:16) Keep far from a false matter.  (Exodus 23:7) You must not carry false rumors.  (Exodus 23:1)  You shall not deal deceitfully or falsely with one another.” (Leviticus 19:11) 

When making any accusation, we must be certain that we state nothing but facts; no supposition, speculation, or elaboration.  How do we decide whether something that we haven’t personally witnessed is true?  American law recognizes numerous standards for evaluating the likelihood that an assertion is true: statements “against interest,” a dying declaration, “preponderance of the evidence” (more likely true than untrue); “clear and convincing” evidence (the standard for civil fraud), and evidence “beyond a reasonable doubt” (the standard required for criminal convictions). 

In last week’s posting, the husband admitted to his lover that he had lied about being unmarried.  Such a confession is not necessary to warrant “outing,” but even a strong suspicion alone is probably an insufficient basis upon which to assert adultery.  Our standard should be at least "clear and convincing" and perhaps "beyond a reasonable doubt."  We are obliged to give people the benefit of the doubt, and this applies most strongly when a false accusation could be devastating.

“Death and life are in the hands of the tongue.” -- Proverbs 18:21 Rabbi Chama the son of Rabbi Chanina says: What does the verse mean when it says life and death are in the hand of the tongue?  Does the tongue have hands?  This is to teach us that just as a hand can kill, so can a tongue. 

Is a tongue limited to kill in close proximity, like a hand?  The verse says: “Their tongue is a sharpened arrow (Jeremiah 9:7).”  Is the tongue limited to a distance of forty or fifty cubits, like an arrow?  The verse says,” “They placed their mouth in the skies [i.e., the limit of the damage of the tongue is the sky].”  -- Talmud: Arachin 15B 

2.  EVEN IF TRUE, IT IS NECESSARY THAT I SAY IT? 

“But it’s true!” is not a sufficient justification to talk about someone. If it were, there would be no right to privacy.  But respecting the privacy of others is an important Jewish ethical value:

How beautiful are your tents Oh Jacob, your dwelling places Oh Israel. --  Numbers 24:5  Balaam saw how the doorway of the tent of one Jew never faced the doorway of the tent of another Jew.  Upon seeing this, Balaam exclaimed: These people deserve that the Divine spirit rest upon them.  -- Talmud (Bava Batra 60A).  

If someone wants to put a window in a wall facing upon the courtyard of his neighbor, whether it be a large or small window, whether high or low, the owner of the courtyard can prevent him from doing so by claiming that “you will harm me by looking in.”  Even if it is a high window, you can go up on a ladder and look in on my courtyard.”  -- Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law), Choshen Mishpat 154:6

It must therefore be necessary to breach a person’s privacy by disclosing (a truth) about someone.  Usually, this means that the person being told has an objectively vital interest in learning the information.  In my post, the spouse was unknowingly being exposed to the proven risk of an SDT infection.   

A few years ago, my wife and I struck up an acquaintance with a charming man in a Jerusalem synagogue.  After several social meetings with us, he explained that he was in temporary financial difficulty and asked us to loan him money, which he later “repaid” with a check drawn on a closed account.  When we learned that we were not the first in the community whom he had cheated, we reported him to the rabbi, who put the word out to protect others.  (The last we heard, this man was serving time in prison for fraud). 

3.     WHAT IMPACT WILL MY STATEMENT HAVE ON A) THE PERSON I WILL SPEAK ABOUT?  B) THE LISTENER?  C) ME? 

Wrong speech is a transgression that is equivalent to murder, but even more serious because it kills three people: the one who said it, the one who heard it, and the one about whom it was said. -- Maimonides, Hilchot De'ot 7:3, citing Talmud: Arachin 15B

In any situation, we are least likely to engage in evil speech if we attempt to foresee how our words will affect all those involved.  Doing so will also likely help us to speak at an appropriate time, in an appropriate setting, and in a considerate manner.  This will not only minimize potential harm but also the listener’s natural resistance to the information provided.

Our ethical tradition assigns grave importance to proper speech, especially when we accuse others.  This does not lessen our obligation to “surely rebuke.”  Rather, it heightens our responsibility to “incur no guilt” when we do so.  (Leviticus 19:17)

Shabbat shalom! 

Comments

Comments

There are currently no comments, be the first to post one.

Comment Form

Only registered users may post comments.

If charity cost nothing, the world would be full of philanthropists.
Jewish Proverb