Accepting Lashon Hara

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April 07 2006

The Talmud makes reference to a correlate prohibition of lashon hara, known as kabalat, or "receiving" lashon hara. (Pesachim 87b and 118a; see Rambam, Sefer HaMitzvot 181 and Hil. Sanhedrin 21:7; Sefer HaChinukh, 74; Sha’arei Teshuvah, 303:211.) However, this application requires some definition, as it is rare that the listener will be warned in advance that he is about to be told lashon hara. (As to the question of the necessity of avoiding the physical act of listening, see Mishpetei HaTorah p. 221, n. 27). The nature of this definition is the topic of dispute among later authorities. R. Yisrael Meir Kagan, in his classic treatise on the laws of lashon hara, Chafetz Chayim (Klal 6, ch. 10) rules on this question in a far-reaching manner. It is granted that one may protect himself and others by taking into consideration the possibility that the information is true. Beyond the needs of protection, though, the listener must remain internally convinced that the information is false. A contemporary author of responsa, R. Moshe Shternbuch, questioned the feasibility of such a position (Responsa Teshuvot V'Hanhagot, I, 555). The Torah has been placed in the realm of human beings; it is unlikely that mortals can exert such active control over their recognition of a well-known associate's credibility. If a trustworthy individual conveys an item of news, the listener knows with near-certainty that the item is genuine. Rather, suggests R. Shternbuch, it must be assumed that the prohibition of kabalat lashon hara is relevant not to internal perceptions but to actions. The imperative would be to guarantee that one's behavior toward the subject not change as a consequence of the shared information. The mental acceptance, though, would be understood to be unavoidable and forgivable. It appears that the center of this dispute is a fundamental question as to the nature of Lashon Hara as a prohibition. One view may be that the transgression is one of personality traits, an exhortation not to exhibit or indulge in the unsavory characteristics of a gossip. Another view, possibly hesitant to assign a prohibition in the realm of character, would understand Lashon Hara to be directed at an action, i.e., the conveying of information that has the potential to harm. The Chafetz Chayim seems to be reasoning from the perspective of character traits. The vice of gossip is a shared experience; the listener and the speaker play equal roles. That granted, if the prohibition of kabalat lashon hara teaches that lashon hara must not be allowed to "suceed", the responsibility becomes the halting of the process in it's tracks. Thus, even on a mental level, the gossip must not be acepted at all. R. Shternbuch, however, may be interpreting the prohibition as action focused, forbidding harmful speech. Thus, the responsibility not to receive lashon hara would translate into the listener ensuring that no damage ensues as a result of hearing the information. An interesting hypothetical posited by R. Yechezkel Michaelson (Responsa Tirosh ViYitzhar, 57) may also be indicative of the above analysis. What reaction would be required, he asks, of someone approached with an offer of gossip, when the prospective listener, unbeknownst to the speaker, is actually the subject of the gossip. R. Michaelson apparently assumes that the subject is too gentle to inform the speaker of this fact, and thus allots two options to the subject. One approach would be to treat the offer like any other invitation to lashon hara, and firmly decline to participate. The other possibility would be to assume that the potential for harm in this case is limited, as the listener is also the subject. Thus, it might be advantageous to listen silently to the information, and thus acquire the Heavenly praise the Talmud ascribes to those who “are insulted and do not insult in return, hear their disgrace and do not respond.” It would seem, again, that the two possibilities are dependant on the above question.


Collections: Rabbi Feldman Mini Shiur (Daf)

References: Pesachim: 87b Pesachim: 118a  

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