Shalom Rosenberg, April 24 2009, Maariv
Rabbinic literature teaches us that the word metzor’a (leprous) is short for motzi shem r’a (slanderous). Consequently, the Tazria/Metzora weekly Torah portions became the subject of a debate on the ethics of language, serving to prevent the dangerous modern incarnation of the ancient disease: the plague of information. Jewish sources are full of important insights into this issue, with one of the most prolific thinkers on this subject being Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, also known as Chafetz Chaim (The Seeker of Life), the author of the eponymous book dealing with the issue of slander. I tried to summarize his conclusions as ten commandments that would serve as an ethical code, a kind of vaccine against the plague of information leprosy. These are general principles, dealing with the details of which can be quite complicated.
I divided the commandments into three groups, the first dealing directly with information-related transgressions:
1. Prohibition of slander, i.e. the dissemination of false and damaging information.
2. A similar prohibition applying even when the information in question is truthful, if its dissemination is unnecessarily damaging.
3. Prohibition of gossip, rightfully protecting a person’s privacy and anonymity from intrusion.
4. The One Witness Rule, although based on Talmudic law, has behind it the general idea of protecting the accused from becoming a lynch target as a result of partial or unreliable information.
Interestingly, the second commandment asserts that harm can be caused even by telling a truth. This idea will not sit well with the mass media, which operate on the premise that any truth is fit to print. Nevertheless, take an example such as the information about blood donated by soldiers and thrown out because of medical concerns. Even though the information was truthful, publishing it violated the sixth commandment, which will be discussed later – the prohibition of humiliation. It was the journalist’s job to report the truth, but, just as in medicine, his first and foremost duty was to prevent harm.
The second group of commandments deals with the plague of information:
5. Physical and financial harm can be quantified and remedied to at least some extent. But there is also a different kind of harm: psychological harm that can be caused by verbal abuse, the emotional equivalent of abusing an animal. It can manifest itself in a poisoned arrow of a spoken word, a pen or a keyboard. Is this sin the exclusive domain of journalists? Have not all of us indulged in it at some time, either in public or in private?
6. The prohibition of humiliation – the damage to a person’s public and self image: anyone created in God’s image is entitled to respect, from which stems the obligation to differentiate between legitimate criticism and making a person the subject of ridicule.
7. The next prohibition is fascinating in that its subject, flattery, is treated as the flip side of humiliation. Transgressors include those fierce critics who suddenly hide their poisoned arrows when faced with their own leaders (religious or secular), their political allies, or any idols they hold on a pedestal, until those collapse under their own weight.
The public implications of information manifest themselves in vested interests, which lie at the base of what motivates a person to sin. The next two commandments deal with such motivations:
8. The prohibition against corruption may seem obvious, but its subject is a real threat to all of us in some form or shape, including the whistleblowers. It commands us not to cooperate with the unjust, and not to serve the interests of organized crime, of corrupt politicians or of anyone else in possession of wealth and power.
9. The prohibition against hypocrisy is derived from the obligation to protect the truth to the extent it is known, even against the dominant consensus: “Thou shalt not follow a multitude to [do] evil” (Exodus, 23:2). An impossible obligation, since it commands us to disregard that flattery by the masses that are ratings.
Reliable information is the basis for a functional society: “Death and life – Are brought upon men by, the good or bad use of their tongues.” (Proverbs, 18:21). Death and life, war and peace. Reliability of information means separating it from estimates and opinion. And how are we, consumers of information, supposed to react? The Jewish sources, says Chafetz Chaim, command another prohibition, this time directed at us, the audience:
10. “Thou shalt not receive a false report” (Exodus, 23:1). It is sinful to listen to and to accept slanderous information. Readers, listeners and viewers share in the responsibility of maintaining the integrity of the media. They should not give in, they should maintain a critical position, make their voices heard, and even become “freedom fighters” – i.e. refuse to read, listen or watch, if necessary.
[Edited by Donna Bossin].