• “Shaming” – A brief Halachic guide

    by Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, 28 October, 2015

    Brief cautionary note:
    Slander and causing embarrassment play a very crucial role in our lives. The Chafetz Chaim of blessed memory showed us the appropriate amount of detail a Halachic book that must contain on this subject which is literally a matter of life and death. The brief words written below do not constitute a complete and systematized treatise of the subject, rather they form a practical summary of many years of involvement in this and similar subjects, and they constitute a practical guide in light of the Halacha on the subject of shaming.

    Reporting the shaming:

    At the outset one needs to remember that we are dealing with a subject which is literally a matter of life and death. In the opinion of some of the medieval commentators (Rishonim) one must rather die than commit a transgression in this regard. This reminder applies to both parties – whether it is the injured party, where our silence and failure to support him could lead to his demise, or whether it applies to the wrongdoer, where an overreaction to his crime may also result in very dire consequences. The last year has taught us that words can also kill in the latter case. Therefore any decision should only be made with pure motives and for pure intentions and not for the purposes of gain for other parties, and as much as possible it must be for the pure sake of heaven.

    It is important to emphasize in Jewish ethics the notion of the “public having a right to know” is a distorted notion. The public has no right to know every detail of an individual’s private affairs. Jewish ethics does recognize the “duty of the public to know”, in other words: there are things of which the public has a duty to be informed- a duty to report. It is not always easy to distinguish between the two but it is important this be the guiding principle of the person who reports it.

    Four vital conditions must exists when it comes to reporting the shaming:

    1) Truth – the author of the shaming must write the truth and should confine himself to the relevant truth but must make sure that such truth is presented in its entirety. It is forbidden for someone to write anything of which he has no personal knowledge and instead he should write “I speculate”, “I assume” or “some have claimed this, but I emphasize that I do not know this as a fact,” etc. The word “truth” includes complete avoidance of any manipulative language and distinguishing between the facts and the interpretation thereof. The basis for this Halacha may be found in the Torah’s demand to “distance oneself from falsehood”. In other words: it is insufficient merely not to lie, one must distance oneself from falsehood (this is the only thing in the Torah from which there is an express command to distance oneself.).

    2) Necessity – if there is no necessity to publish these things in public, and there are other ways of solving the problem which are just as efficient- you must take the other path and not spread libel about an individual in public; in contradistinction if there is a dire necessity to publicize the matter – it is forbidden to keep silent as the Torah has commanded us “Do not stand still when your neighbor’s life is in danger” as well as “You shall rid yourselves of evil”

    3) Proportionality- the mere fact that it is permissible and perhaps even an obligation to publicize these matters does not absolve the reporter from disclosing only that which is necessary. Irrelevant facts, even if true, which may harm someone else who does not deserve to be harmed are forbidden to be published, proportionality is also related to many other aspects – the ability to easily identify the person who has been reported (there is no way of completely avoiding identification and therefore I am referring specifically to the ease or difficulty of identification, etc.).

    4) Caution- Beware of causing greater damage specifically due to the reporting and thereby causing much greater harm than is deserved. This is not a Halachic condition, but one has to remember that together with reporting the matters as explicitly as possible one should also examine the possibility of allowing for an opportunity to correct, soften, and change the narrative. We should not only be speaking the language of justice but also the language of mercy and compassion. Halacha has taught us that the law of “loving your neighbor as yourself” applies even to a person who is about to be executed

    Spreading the Shaming:

    This is a complicated issue and it is difficult to set fixed guidelines since on the one hand without spreading the information we have dispensed with a vital tool to wage the battle. On the other hand there is a possibility of manipulating and exploiting the pure intentions of the reader for despicable motives. Therefore we should utilize this tool sparingly to avoid the hazards we are bound to cause which would bring about indescribable and irremediable suffering- whatever is published on the internet remains there. Nevertheless it is possible to establish the following principles (in light of the episode cited in Tractate Niddah 61a).

    1. The reader of the shaming must embed in his mind the recognition that what he is reading is not a fact but rather a story or narrative of someone writing something. It could be correct and it could also be incorrect, and generally speaking there is an enormously wide spectrum of possibilities where some of the things are accurate while others are less so.
    2. The reader of the shaming should make every effort to hear the position of the other party- the wrongdoer, by virtue of the instruction given to the judges “‘Listen to every dispute among your brethren, and judge honestly”. Anytime we read such information we are involved in an act of judging and it requires us to make the best effort we can of listening to both sides so that we can know more.
    3. The reader of the shaming should evaluate the necessity of spreading these matters far and wide. If forwarding such information does no good – it is forbidden to forward it; if it emerges as much as you are able to detect that these matters which you have forwarded are indeed essential to deal with the injustice, (even if not by such a great degree) then you must forward it while noting the fact: “Take note that although I am forwarding this notice I do not know whether it is correct, but it is essential that it be forwarded– judge for yourselves, etc.

    For the reasons raised above one should know that it is best to use this tool very sparingly.  And when you do make use of it then the words we have cited above should serve as general guidelines to assist us in preserving conduct which conforms to Halachic ethics even in a complex clash between the duty to save the oppressed from his oppressor and the prohibition against public embarrassment and slander.

    by Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, 28 October, 2015