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The Jewish Ethicist - Duty to Warn

May 8, 2009 | by Rabbi Dr. Asher Meir, Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem

Protest should be constructive, not disruptive.

Q. Recently someone in our area started advertising a get-rich-quick scheme and is inviting interested people to an introductory meeting. Should I attend and try to debunk the scheme for the benefit of the gullible attendants?

A. Quick money-making schemes never lose their allure. While we are all aware that earning a good income generally requires time, energy and specialized ability, we also know that there are occasional lucky individuals who happen to be in the right place at the right time, and hope we may be one of them. I imagine that there may even be an occasional scheme which brings in more money from providing a useful service to customers than it eats up in fees collected from eager participants, though I must admit I have never actually encountered one.

There are many good reasons for you to try and bring an objective point of view to the revival-meeting atmosphere that tends to thrive in these meetings. From a Jewish point of view, you have the opportunity to save the leader from transgression, and to save the participants from a likely loss.

The Torah commands, "Don't hate your brother in your heart; surely reprove your fellow, and don't bear sin towards him" (Leviticus 10:17). The beginning of the verse tells us that if someone is doing a transgression we shouldn't just condemn them silently; we should try to rectify the situation. The middle of the verse tells us to admonish a transgressor, to try and convince him to refrain from wrongdoing. The end, "don't bear sin towards him", tells us to deliver reproof in a constructive manner that will not cause embarrassment.

So from this point of view there would certainly be some benefit in your attending the meeting, asking pointed questions that would possibly prevent the organizer from misleading the participants by withholding important information etc.

Another Torah command is, "Don't stand idly by the blood of your brother" (Leviticus 19:16). This commandment tells us to be proactive in preventing loss to our fellow man, and not to stand by idly if his welfare is in danger. Since the majority of participants in these schemes end up either losing money or causing losses to others, so this commandment is relevant to the situation you describe.

However, there are some opposing considerations as well. Note that the invitation is directed towards "interested people". This doesn't categorically exclude you; after all, if you conclude the idea has merit you may indeed be interested, and if it has no merit then your responsibility to warn is that much greater. But there is still a certain amount of subterfuge involved given that your interest is not your primary motive for attending, so this kind of activity should not be taken lightly.

Another, critical question is whether your presence will really achieve your goal. Will your questions be persuasive, or will they be countered by equally persuasive professional patter? It is likely that the participants are aware of the various reservations you would like to express, but for reasons ranging from gullibility to crazy optimism to desperation have decided to temporarily ignore them. Some may have rationally assessed the odds and decide that the endeavor is worth the risk, or may provide them with valuable experience in the school of hard knocks that will be worth the few hundred or thousand dollars they are putting at risk.

Finally, there is the danger of the slippery slope. You personally may be:

  1. Fully convinced that the endeavor involves undisclosed risk to participants;
  2. Determined to express your reservations in a constructive and not disruptive way;
  3. Be solely motivated by concern for the spiritual and material welfare of the organizer and participants.

But encouraging this kind of voluntary activity will lend legitimacy to all kinds of disruptive activities. The last thing we all want is for gatherings of legitimate organizations to be routinely disrupted by rivals, protestors, provocateurs and so on. Our open democratic society gives us adequate alternative methods to express reservations; disruptive displays should remain an absolute last resort.

Our tradition has an expression for expressions of resistance that are legitimate only if they have completely pure motivations: haba limalech, ein morin ken: if someone comes to consult, we don't instruct people this way. (1) The directive will invariably be misused by someone with improper motives.

If you are firmly convinced that your intervention will be helpful and are willing to devote the time and energy, then it seems to me that the most constructive and least disruptive action would be to stand outside the gathering area and offer prospective participants a flyer. This could be a printed page which states briefly your reservations regarding the proposal (including any verifiable negative information) together with questions you suggest they ask. This is likely to achieve any positive contribution your presence would make, without any of the negative disruption you would risk with your presence.

SOURCES: (1) Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 82a.

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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.


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