Friday, June 19, 2009

Jewish Ethics Project: Ethical Dilemma #9: Do We Need to Know?

Ethical Dilemma #9: Do We Really Need to Know? (From Rabbi Joseph Telushkin)

It's easy enough to know a general rule. It's easy enough to know that sometimes there are exceptions. The tricky part is deciding what counts as an exception.

"Although it is almost always wrong to speak lashon hara [negative words; gossip], there is one time it is permitted to do so: when the person to whom we are speaking has a legitimate need to know something negative about another... For example, it is permitted to speak lashon hara... when someone consults with us on whether or not she should hire a certain person for a job... We are also permitted to speak lashon hara in a therapeutic setting, when speaking, for example, to a psychologist or psychiatrist... We are obligated to relate lashon hara to help an innocent victim who will suffer an injustice if the truth is not made known." (A Code of Jewish Ethics, Volume 1: You Shall Be Holy, p.366-7)

Imagine you have a friend (call her Abby) who casually (but not jokingly) makes a very bigoted remark to you about a certain ethnic group. You point out that this is offensive, and Abby shrugs and makes what seems to you to be a glib and unserious apology. A week later, you are speaking to another friend (call her Zelda), who mentions that she enjoys spending time with Abby. Zelda belongs to the very ethnic group which you heard Abby disparage.

Is this a case in which the person (Zelda) has a legitimate need to know negative gossip (what Abby said)? Or should you say nothing?

If you were Zelda, would you want to know what Abby said? If you were Abby, would you want to be given the benefit of the doubt, and the chance to form a friendship with Zelda without being stymied by having made one ill-considered remark?

What general guidelines should we set in order to determine what constitutes a legitimate need to know?

Join the conversation at

No comments: