One of the greatest developments of this Millennium if not the greatest of them all is the revolutionary change in the field of information. Information that in years past would have required years and decades of training to acquire in the past is now easily available on the Internet. This abundance of information is a great blessing in many ways, as it enables and benefits people in ways that spare them precious time and resources. The downside of this excess of information, however, is that it avails a great amount of information that should not be accessible. The Torah strictly prohibits us not only from relaying negative information about another person- whether true or not- but also from listening to and accepting negative information about another person.
This vast availability of knowledge poses a unique challenge to the observant Jew. While trying to maintain high standards of integrity and observing the scriptural prohibitions against telling or accepting lashon ha-ra (lit. evil speech, a term that includes both gossip and slander) we are challenged by the fact that so much negative information is easily accessible to anyone and everyone. Is the fact that this information is accessible change the halakha and permit the discussion and public acknowledgment of negative information or must one bury their head in the ground and ignore this information despite its publicity? After all- if the purpose of the prohibition against lashon ha-ra is to protect the person who is being discussed what relevance does this law have once it is already common knowledge?
Some, advocating the permissibility of relaying negative information that has become accepted public knowledge, cite the opinion of the Rambam. The Rambam (Hilkhot Deot 7:7) states:
“[The statements] of people who relate matters which, when passed from one person to another, will cause harm to a man’s person or to his property or will even [merely] annoy him or frighten him are considered as lashon ha-ra. If such statements were made in the presence of three people, [one may assume that] the matter has already become public knowledge. Thus, if one of the three relates the matter a second time, it is not considered lashon ha-ra, provided his intention was not to spread the matter further and publicize it.”
This passage clearly indicates that once something has become public knowledge it is permissible to repeat it as long as one has no negative intentions and is not attempting to further spread the negative information. What would be the rationale for such an exception of the severe laws of lashon ha-ra? How is it that this severe prohibition – so serious that it is equated to the three cardinal sins (Talmud Yerushalmi Peah Chapter one)- is suddenly permitted once it has been transgressed in the presence of three people?
As the essence of Lashon Ha-ra is the infliction of damage, intimidation, or a diminished social status on one’s fellow by divulging negative information-even if it is true(Rambam ibid.)- it would seem compelling to suggest that the rationale for the leniency of relating negative information that has been explicated in the presence of three is its assumed publicity and thus the inconsequentiality of relating it again. This reading is supported by Rambam’s explicit reasoning who reasons “If such statements were made in the presence of three people [since the matter] has already become public knowledge.” It is at this point that we must wonder if indeed the Rambam meant to codify a leniency that is based on the notion permitting knowledge that has already become public why is it that he limits it to cases of first hand knowledge and modifies it only to instances that the person relating the information has no negative intentions?
Rabbi Yisrael Meir Ha-kohen of Radin, in his magnum opus Chafets Chaim (lashon ha-ra klal 2 ft. 3), suggests a fascinating and compelling understanding of the essence of the prohibition of lashon ha-ra. While it is clear that the foundation of the prohibition is the protection of the victim from the detrimental impacts of the negative or damaging information told about him, there is another key component to this severe prohibition, namely the protection of the person telling the lashon ha-ra. Negative speech impacts not only the person who is the subject of the negative information, but also damages and diminishes the character of the person telling the lashon ha-ra. While discussing information that is well known to many people may lack the potential to cause any further damage to the subject of the discussion, it is still replete with implications for the person relating this negative information.
The Chafets Chaim therefore strongly opposes relying on this passage in the Rambam, even if one already satisfies the other two conditions stipulated by the Rambam: requiring firsthand knowledge of the negative information and the full absence of negative intentions. These complications render the Rambam’s position almost completely inapplicable.
The Internet and its abundance of information have brought humankind great progress, benefits, and advancement. Like any significant human development this can be used for good or for bad. We must ensure that this advent of information is kept a blessing, and is used to enhance and better people’s lives and not the opposite. Creating a culture in which people feel safe, appreciated, and valued is essential for spiritual growth, creativity, and fulfillment and is what the Torah intends to create with its strong safeguards against lashon ha-ra.
Cf Hammayan January 2014 who argues on the position taken in Tchumin vol 33 p136.
See also Sheilot u-Teshuvot Sheilat Aharon (Rabbi Aharon Felder) Siman 20
Published in The YU Lamdan, March 2014