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The Jewish Ethicist: Vote Confidential

May 9, 2009 | by Rabbi Dr. Asher Meir, Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem

Closed doors foster open discussion.

Q. I sit on our club's membership committee, which meets and votes in secret on new candidates. Can I reassure a friend that I supported his rejected application?

A. An almost identical situation is discussed in the Mishnah: Whence do we learn that when one of the judges goes out he should not say [to a litigant], I voted to acquit, and my colleagues to obligate; what could I do since my colleagues outvoted me? Of this it is said, 'Don't go about as a talebearer among your people' (Leviticus 19:16). (1)

The verse mentioned in the Mishnah is the main Scriptural source for the prohibition known as lashon hara , literally the wicked tongue . This term is usually translated as slander , but the simple meaning of the verse refers also to any kind of gossip -- revealing private details even if they are not necessarily derogatory.

Both aspects of the prohibition are present in the case of the Mishnah, as well as in your case. First of all there is the issue of slander. In Jewish law the main criterion for slander is not if the revelation is objectively derogatory, but rather if it is likely to cause damage to the subject, including damage to his image. This would forbid revealing that a particular judge or committee member ruled against the candidate, who will surely consider the decision ill-advised.

But even if there is nothing derogatory about the revelation, if it includes private matters it should be kept in confidence. There is a good reason that judicial discussions as well as committee ones are held behind closed doors. The very private considerations that are raised are not meant for public discussion, and are sure to embarrass someone if they are disclosed. The very knowledge that someone may reveal the content of the discussions afterwards will likely have a chilling effect on the exchange of ideas. Perhaps in an open discussion one person would be able to persuade the others of his position, but out of fear of revelation he doesn't reveal his ideas or doesn't present them forcefully.

The kind of revelation you mention has an additional problem as well: diminishing the legitimacy of the committee you serve on. When a person agrees to take part in a forum that rules by majority rule, he acknowledges that the decision of the majority is considered the decision of the entire body. In the case of the Jewish court, the majority rule is not adopted because the many outrule the few, but rather because following an open and honest discussion, the majority rule is considered the ruling of the body as a whole. The final judgment incorporates the views of all participants.

We see this clearly from the same chapter of the Mishnah, which teaches that if one judge is undecided then no ruling is made -- even if that judge's ruling would not affect the vote. For example, if two judges are in favor of liability and one is undecided, this is not considered a majority for liability , and another judge must be added. Perhaps if his decision would differ from that of the current majority, his reasoning would persuade the others! Each person's input is a vital element in the final, joint decision, and if one view is missing the group has not decided.

Secret committees, if they take their work seriously, have an important role in raising delicate questions in a reasoned and non-threatening forum. Paradoxically, their very secrecy makes them one of the most important organs of the free exchange of ideas in our society.

Revealing the content of such discussions undermines this important function. It creates ill-will towards committee members, is likely to have a chilling effect on open discussion in the future, and ultimately erodes the legitimacy of a democratic communal decision making process.

(1) Mishnah Sanhedrin 3:8

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The Jewish Ethicist presents some general principles of Jewish law. For specific questions and direct application, please consult a qualified Rabbi.

The Jewish Ethicist is a joint project of and the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem. To find out more about business ethics and Jewish values for the workplace, visit the JCT Center for Business Ethics website at

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