Chavurah Masarti

Lynchburg, VA                  Founded on 2 Cheshvan, 5766 

Lashon Harah, Rechilut and the Internet

This Rabbinical opinion was developed by Michael Gillette and it represents a trans-denominational perspective.  Readers who identify with a particular Jewish movement or congregation should consider their local Rabbi as the appropriate authority.

Question:  Suppose that an applicant for a job as a substance abuse counselor has Facebook postings showing her engaged in illicit drug use?  Would it be lashon harah (slander) if someone who sees the posting brings it to the attention of the potential employer?  Suppose that an Orthodox Jew is considered a finalist for a teaching position at a Reform synagogue, but he had previously posted an article on the internet denigrating the Reform movement?  Would it be rechilut (unethical gossip) if a congregant who saw the post shared the website with the chairperson of the search committee?  In any case, is it unethical to share information about an individual that is posted by the individual in a public way on the internet?

Opinion:  In any situation in which an individual places information in the public domain with the clear understanding that it will be viewed by more than a tightly controlled group of intended recipients, re-transmission of that information is not lashon harah, although re-transmission could still be rechilut.  However, if the re-transmission is done with proper intent, not only might it no longer be rechilut, but it might also be ethically obligatory to share the information with appropriate parties.

   Before we can examine the halachic approach to dealing with public internet postings, we must define our terms.  Two concepts important to this discussion are ‘lashon harah’ and ‘rechilut’.  Lashon Harah, literally translated as ‘evil speech’, should be understood as any speech act that is damaging or demeaning to another.  Rechilut, or gossip, should be understood as any speech act that, even if not damaging or demeaning in itself, will result in increased discord among people.  For example, if Plony says that Reuven is unintelligent, Plony has engaged in lashon harah.  If Shimshon tells Reuven that Plony said he was unintelligent, which is a mere report of true facts that Plony might not even deny, that is not lashon harah, but it is rechilut.

  The accepted authoritative treatment of these issues is the Sefer Chafetz Chaim written by Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan.  This comprehensive work on the halacha of speech is so decisive and impressive that its author is most commonly known as the ‘Chafetz Chaim’, named after his seminal work.  The positions defended in this opinion draw almost exclusively on a study of the Sefer Chafetz Chaim (here after referred to as the SCC) and its commentaries, which provide an excellent catalogue of Rabbinic literature on this subject.

  In the opening introduction to the SCC, the Chafetz Chaim lists 17 negative commandments and 14 positive commandments from the Torah that one violates by engaging in evil speech.  Based on this exhaustive list, the Chafetz Chaim clearly indicates that the harm we do to our fellows by means of speech acts is just as important, and potentially just as serious, as the harm we do by physical aggression.  This area of halacha is clearly important, and the challenges posed by communication in the internet age seem the perfect fodder for a discussion of lashon harah.

  The starting point for this discussion must be based on a technical distinction.  The actions described in the question, above, do not fall under the category of lashon harah for two specific reasons.  First, the SCC raises doubts about whether the repetition of a speech act that causes direct harm to an individual can be considered lashon harah if it is already generally known information that is in the public domain.  Kelal Beit section three of Hilchot Esurei Lashon Hara (K2/3) reads:

 There are those opinions that hold that if someone related his fellow Jew’s shame in front of three people, even though this speaker most certainly sinned in speaking Lashon Hara, even so, if afterwards one of these three people who heard the remarks repeats them to others, this person is not said to have transgressed the sin of Lashon Hara, because once three people already know these comments, word of these comments are considered to have become generally known to everyone because of the concept of “word passes from person to person” and anything that will inevitably become common knowledge was exempted by the Torah from the laws of Lashon Hara.

  The discussion then goes on to argue that even if three people already know, however, the action of retransmission could be lashon harah if the speaker is acting with the intent to broaden the scope of individuals who know the information.

  I believe, however, that the concept of three people knowing, equivalent to our modern concept of information in the public domain, demonstrates that retransmission of the information on the internet is not lashon harah precisely because the person who posts the information about him/herself on the internet is intending for the widest possible group of individuals to see it.  If the retransmitter had hacked into a private space on the internet and then shared discovered information, it would be plausible to conclude that the hacker intended to share the information to a broader audience than that targeted by the initial author.  However, if the information is published on the internet in a public way, the intent of the initial publisher was for broad dissemination, and the person who brings that public posting to the attention of a potential employer has not expanded the scope of potential recipients.  For this reason, I do not believe that mentioning the existence of a public web-post to a potential employer is lashon harah.

   However, even if this first argument is unconvincing, a second argument is decisive.  In the scenarios described above, the initial speech acts under consideration cannot be considered lashon harah because they are performed by the subject of concern him/herself.  In the two examples cited, the prospective addiction counselor and religious educator are the very people who engaged in the initial speech act.  They were talking about themselves, not others, when they posted their material.  In all discussions of lashon harah, the question involves what person A says about person B.  Since the initial speech act in our cases is performed by the potential victim – that is, the person who will be harmed if people know what he/she said or did – there is no lashon harah.  When a subsequent party retransmits the information that was initially published on the internet and intended for broad dissemination, that action could create “discord among people”, but then the retransmission of the posted material is potentially an act of rechilut, not lashon harah.

  Now that we have clarified that the actions under consideration are more properly considered rechilut rather than lashon harah, the issue can be resolved quite quickly.  The SCC clearly indicates that if done with the proper intention, assuming that certain safeguards are met, brining the questionable information to the attention of an individual in a position of authority in order to prevent a harmful relationship (such as employment) is not only halachically permissible, it is also obligatory.

  Kelal Tet section one of Hilchot Esurei Rechilut (RK9/1) of the SCC states “If an observer sees a fellow Jew about to form a partnership in some venture with someone else and realizes that the partnership would result in a bad outcome, he is obligated to warn him in order to save him from a bad loss…”  The SCC goes on to outline five safeguards as follows:

1.     One must not immediately draw a negative conclusion, but must investigate further.

2.     One must not exaggerate the information.

3.     One must intend only “to achieve a useful/beneficial outcome”

4.     One must only share the information if there is no other way to avoid the harmful outcome.

5.     One must not share the information if the harm done to the subject of the discussion would be inordinate in comparison to the risk of harm to the person or group being protected.

   On the basis of this material, it should be clear that if an individual has information that was published by a potential employee that indicates that the employee is either incapable of performing appropriate employment tasks, or that he/she would bring controversy to the hiring agency in such a way that it might cause the hiring agency to suffer, the person in possession of the information does not engage in lashon harah or rechilut by bringing the information to the attention of the hiring body, provided that he/she does so in a way that is calculated to avoid harm.  Furthermore, the re-transmitter should share the information only with parties who can use the information to prevent harm.  In fact, not only is sharing information in this way permissible, failure to act in a way that is calculated to protect the hiring agency would constitute a breach of ethical obligation. 

  The only lingering question is whether or not this argument can be generalized to all employment situations.  The SCC mentions only circumstances in which one Jew is attempting to protect another Jew.  However, I would argue that the context in which Jews currently live in the United States of America justifies a broader application of the laws of evil speech to non-Jews such that Jews must consider lashon harah and rechilut as now being universalized duties toward all others in an integrated, multi-religious society.  While complex arguments in favor of this position can be produced, it should suffice for our present purposes to quote the Talmud, Gittin 7b, which states:

Our Rabbis have taught: We support the poor of the heathen along with the poor of Israel, and visit the sick of the heathen along with the sick of Israel, and bury the poor of the heathen along with the dead of Israel, in the interests of peace.

  And so we should extend the duties of chesed to all members of our human family.

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