The Jewish Ethicist: Believe It or Not?
It is as forbidden to believe slanderous stories as it is to relate them.
Q. I received an email from an old acquaintance. He described in detail how he is being exploited by a certain individual and asked for my help in pressuring the individual to do him justice. Can I help my acquaintance out in this way?
A. It is certainly a wonderful deed to help a person in need. The Torah emphasizes in many places the great sin of taking advantage of the vulnerable, and stating that God Himself will intervene on their behalf. For example, in the book of Exodus (22:21:23, Living Torah translation ) we find:
Do not mistreat a widow or an orphan. If you mistreat them, and they cry out to Me, I will hear their cry. I will [then] display My anger and kill you by the sword, so that your wives will be widows, and your children, orphans.
Certainly we should emulate His attributes.
But before you can try to help the oppressed, you have to verify the story. In this column we have discussed innumerable times the prohibition of speaking lashon hara, speaking ill of others unless the disclosure meets stringent conditions of accuracy, necessity and proportionality. This prohibition is learned from the Torah verse, "Don't go about as a talebearer among your people". (Leviticus 19:16.)
However, it is less well known that there is also a prohibition on receiving slander. In particular, when we hear someone making a damaging disclosure about someone else, we are forbidden to believe the story, again unless certain stringent conditions are fulfilled.
The Torah commands (Exodus 23:1): "Do not accept a false report. Do not join forces with a wicked person to be a corrupt witness." The Midrash Halacha (legal aphorisms from the time of the mishna deducing specific details of laws from the verses of the Torah) tells us:
This is an admonition not to accept lashon hara. Another explanation: It is an admonition to the judge not to hear one litigant unless the other litigant is present. (1)
The second explanation is what is familiarly known in legal jargon as "ex parte": a judge is forbidden to hear the claims of one side without the presence of the other side. This is true even if subsequently the other side is given the full opportunity to present the case; in order to rebut the other side it is necessary to know exactly what the judge has heard. This accepted rule in modern jurisprudence was accepted in Jewish law from at least the time of the Mechilta.
However, we see that the sages of the Talmud extended this meaning to apply also to an ordinary person. In fact, we find in many cases that Torah commandments applying to judges were extended in this way. For instance, the commandment to judge favorably, the prohibition on taking bribes and so on. There is a profound message in this extension. In our everyday lives we are constantly judging people; the rabbis teach us that this process is not a casual one but one of great significance. Every time we consider a person's acts, we should consider ourselves a judge and give the "defendant" the type of benefits that enlightened legal procedure would grant him. (The exact requirements are however not identical.)
In a strict judicial sense, the meaning of this commandment is that the story cannot be believed to the extent of acting upon it, unless it is properly verified. However, the Torah is not only a legal document but also a moral one. Rabbi Yisrael Meir HaKohen, author of the book Chafetz Chaim on the laws of slander, explains that the prohibition applies even to subjective belief. (2) We find in many places the Torah commands us regarding our inner beliefs; for example, we are commanded to love our neighbor and not to covet. Likewise, explains Rabbi HaKohen, we are ordered to consciously suspend judgment in this case pending appropriate verification.
Given the severity of the acts your acquaintance is asking of you, you would need a very high degree of certainty before taking action on his behalf would be justified. If you would like to help this person, you will have to invest some effort in clarifying the facts to the best of your ability, including giving the accused party an opportunity to present his side of the story and rebut details you have been provided. Until that time, you should satisfy yourself with providing emotional support to your distraught acquaintance.
SOURCES: (1) Mechilta DeRebbe Yishmael Mishpatim (2) Chafetz Chaim Vol. I chapter 6 sections 1-2.