Mens Rea Without Actus Reus

My weekly halachah column for parashas Be’Haalosecha:

Parashas Be’Ha’alosecha concludes with the episode of Miriam and Aharon “speaking against” Moshe and the consequent affliction of the former with tzara’as. The Torah later (Devarim 24:9) adjures us to “Remember what Hashem thy G-d did unto Miriam”. The Ramban (Sefer Ha’Mitzvos #7), following the Sifri, understands this as a commandment to verbally recount Miriam’s conduct and its consequences so that we should avoid the sin of lashon ha’ra (evil speech, i.e., slander) and its punishment. The Chofetz Chaim (Esin #1) declares that one who speaks lashon ha’ra perforce violates this commandment, as at best he must have forgotten Miriam’s punishment at the time of the offense, and if he remembered it and nevertheless sinned, he has the far worse status of an apostate with regard to the prohibition of lashon ha’ra. Elsewhere (Shemiras Ha’Lashon Sha’ar Ha’Tevunah #12), the Chofetz Chaim explains that although we observe that people do speak lashon ha’ra subsequent to, and even during (!) their remembrance of Miriam, this is due to the merely superficial nature of their remembrance.

The Rambam (Hilchos Tumas Tzara’as 16:10) points out Miriam was punished despite the presence of numerous factors mitigating the severity of her lashon ha’ra: she was his older sister, had raised him, and had risked herself to save him from the sea; she had not actually criticized him, but merely erroneously equated him with other prophets (failing to recognize the uniqueness of his prophecy); and Moshe had not minded her comments. We can therefore infer the egregiousness of the sin of the “villains and fools” who speak arrant slander.

My friend R. Daniel Z. Feldman recently published “False Facts and True Rumors: Lashon HaRa in Contemporary Culture”. I consider R. Feldman one of the very best contemporary English language (or really, any language) writers on halachah, combining a deep and broad familiarity with the traditional literature with an understanding of modern society and culture, and a command of traditional analytical methods of Torah study with the thoughtful and serious consideration of the realm of meta-halachah.

About a year ago, R. Natan Slifkin challenged the Chofetz Chaim’s often reiterated insistence that the dispensation of תועלת in the laws of lashon hara requires purity of intent:

A while ago – I forget the details – I was telling some people about how a certain person posed a harmful influence. One person objected that this was lashon hara. When I pointed out that it was leto’eles, for public benefit, this person argued that it is still only permissible if the speaker’s motivations are pure. Since my motivations were suspect, then it was not permissible.

Now, the first observation to be made here is that Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan’s “Laws” of lashon hara are not “laws” in the same sense as the laws of Shabbos found in the Shulchan Aruch. A must-read on this topic is Benjamin Brown’s “From Principles to Rules and from Musar to Halakhah: The Hafetz Hayim’s Rulings on Libel and Gossip,” which you can read at this link. Furthermore, while the Chafetz Chaim’s conclusions became the standard for much of the Orthodox community, this was primarily simply due to his being the first person to systematically discuss the topic.

But what about within the parameters of the Chafetz Chaim’s framework? Is it truly forbidden to warn people of someone’s faults if one’s motivations are not pure? Surely this makes no sense – why should these other people be put in harm’s way just because of one’s own shortcomings?

If we look at the Chafetz Chaim’s discussions of this topic, an interesting discrepancy can be seen. When discussing the laws of lashon hara and cases where it is permitted in order to help others, he lists purity of intent as being an essential condition (Hilchos Lashon Hara 10:2). But later, when discussing the laws of rechilus (tale-bearing) and cases where it is permitted in order to help others (Hilchos Issurei Rechilus 9:2), while he likewise lists pureness of intent as being an essential condition, there is a footnote to his Be’er Mayim Chaim commentary. In the commentary, he notes that even if one does not have purity of intent, one must nevertheless still relate the rechilus. After all, we are discussing a case where it is in order to help others from being harmed, and there is a mitzvah of Lo Ta’amod Al Dam Re’echa, not to stand by when someone is going to be hurt. Rather, he says, when describing purity of motive as a requirement, he means that one should try as much as possible to focus on doing it for positive purposes.

Now, why did the Chafetz Chaim not make this same point in discussing cases where it is permitted to state lashon hara? I don’t know, but it seem very clear that it should equally apply. Perhaps it was simply an oversight. (Alternately, looking carefully at the Chafetz Chaim’s language in discussing lashon hara, it seems to me that he is talking about having proper motive insofar as assessing that there is a genuine chance of helping people, not in terms of one’s inner motives. If I am correct, this is something that has been lost in the ArtScroll translation.)

One who sees the Chafetz Chaim’s work as being a halachic work like the Shulchan Aruch will probably not apply this principle (that purity of motive is not an essential condition) to lashon hara, since the Chafetz Chaim didn’t mention it there. But one who sees the concept of permitted and forbidden speech as being a rational matter of creating a moral society will likewise apply this principle to cases of permitted lashon hara. If it’s a matter of stopping someone from harming others, then it doesn’t make a difference what your personal motives are (except insofar as giving reason to doubly check that it really is a matter of stopping someone from harming others).

It is extraordinary that the works of the Chafetz Chaim, intended to make the world a better place, have often been used to make the world a worse place. Sometimes it is people not giving over harmful information about a shidduch, sometimes it is people not reporting dangerous behavior in a rabbi, sometimes it is people trying to quell frank discussion about social policies. The Torah’s principles of speech are supposed to improve society. We have to use our sechel in applying them.

At the time, I argued that the basic question of whether the need to protect the innocent is somehow overridden by the problematic motivation of the intervener seemed to be the subject of dispute between the Sema and the Taz. They argue over whether the dispensation for a third party to use force against one attempting to perpetrate an assault in order to protect his victim from harm is limited to where we have no reason to suspect the intervener of any personal animus toward the aggressor:

סמ”ע

[אם] זה הבא להציל ולהכות המכה אינו בר הכי דרגיל לאפרוש מאיסורא דכמה פעמים רואה שמכה אחד לחבירו ואינו חושש לאפרושי המכה מאיסורא אז אמרינן דאסור להכות לזה המכה דודאי מכח שנאה בא להכותו ולא בא להפרישו מהאיסור1

ט”ז

ואיני יודע טעם לזה החילוק דכיון דדינא הוא שיכול להציל על ידי הכאה את המוכה מה {לנו} בזה שיש לו שנאה על המכה מכל מקום הוא עושה מצוה להציל את המוכה וכי בכוונת הלב תליא מלתא ואף אם אין דרכו כן לפעמים אחרים הרי לא יפה עשה באותן הפעמים אמנם בהאי מעשה שפיר קעביד ומצוה קעביד2

The Erech Shai apparently sides with the Taz that intent is irrelevant insofar as the action is objectively correct, and he actually applies this standard to lashon hara. He is discussing the question of whether truth is a defense against liability for the tort of defamation, and he argues that insofar as the dissemination of the defamatory information is in some way beneficial to the public, this eliminates any liability, despite the purely malicious intent of the defamer. He does seem to take for granted, however, that malicious action is nevertheless sinful, and he is merely arguing that it is unreasonable that the halachah would establish a penalty for an action that is inherently desirable:

הג”ה [הקורא לחבירו] עבד או ממזר והוא אמת פטור

בשבות יעקב חלק א’ סימן קע”ט כתב בקורא לחברו גנב ומברר בעדים שהוא גנב חייב דשאני עבד וממזר שאינו יכול לתקן בתשובה ומצוה לפרסמו שלא להתחתן בו …

ול”נ דגם בגנב נ”מ שנדע שהוא פסול לעדות ושבועה וגם להזהר ממנו ואף דכונתו אינו רק לביישו ועברה הוא מכל מקום כיון דמבייש בדברים שנו חכמים דפטור רק תקנת גאונים לקנוס כמבואר בבית יוסף מנ”ל דתקנו לקנוס על האמת ותקנתא לרשיעי ולא מתקנו מלתא דאתי לידי תקלה שלא יתפרסמו עוברי עבירה הפסולין לעדות ושבועה … אם לא נדע שהוא גנב לא נשמר ממנו ומצוה לפרסם החנפים ואף דזה לא מיכוין למצוה מכל מקום כיון שגוף הדבר מצוה אין לקנסו וכמו שכתב הט”ז לקמן סימן תכ”א סעיף י”ג.3

[I hope to return in a future post to the basic question of whether halachah recognizes truth as a defense against libel and slander.]

At the time, I did not have the benefit of R. Feldman’s magnificent work; I now see that he notes that the Chofetz Chaim himself elsewhere mentions this dispute between the Sema and the Taz. Here’s an excerpt of R. Feldman’s treatment of the general topic:

However, the very premise of the Hafetz Hayim, that a motive of “purpose” does not by itself justify the relating of information if it is tainted by an accompanying ulterior motive has been the subject of some debate. … Once again, a serious objection can be raised from the need to protect the innocent; it may be that the only one in a position to provide this protection nonetheless bears a personal animus against the subject.

More conceptually, as many note, the premise can be challenged, particularly when the question is abstracted to a broader issue in talmudic law: the role of intent or ulterior motive in undermining the legitimacy of suspending prohibitions under extenuating circumstances. … The theoretical underpinnings of the issue are substantial enough that a later scholar, Rabbi Gershon Robinson, devoted an entire book to defending this premise of the Hafetz Hayim, particularly against the background of the broader talmudic issues. The author notes that lashon hara may differ significantly from other areas of Jewish law in which mixed motivations are present. … if one has such an antipathy toward another that he is eager to speak negatively about him, that bias may fundamentally affect the content that he is relaying and indeed the decision to convey it in the first place.

Practically, this issue is complex and indeed the Hafetz Hayim himself emphasizes different elements of the equation at various points throughout his writings. While the specifics of this consideration are controversial, it seems that two fundamental points emerge from the debate. First, one who is tainted by antipathy toward the subject is prone to the prevalent biases and prejudices that may skew the reliability and even the basic truth of the report, even if he believes he is motivated by the protection of another; thus, a more objective source, if available, is greatly preferable. Second, when there is no alternative, it is incumbent upon the speaker to take all steps possible to compensate for his predisposition and to present as untainted a report as is feasible. …4

In a note, R. Feldman discusses the Sema and Taz:

[Hafetz Hayim] cites a dispute in a different area of Jewish law [the aforementioned Sema and Taz], the analysis of which allows for two views on either extreme of this position: that intent is irrelevant, and necessary speech is permitted regardless; and that not only ulterior intent but the mere presence of preexisting animus disqualifies (thus also rendering intent irrelevant, in the opposite way). The dispute between the Sema and the Taz is discussed at length in Tokhahat Hayim; see also Rabbi Moshe Samsonowitz, Keriya BaKeriya 1, pp. 190-91; Kodesh Yisrael 15; and Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak HaKohen Kook (of Rechovot) in the journal Marpei Lashon IV, pp. 6-12. See also the discussion of the topic by Rabbi Yehonatan Rozler, He’arot Rigshei Hayim to Hafetz Hayim, miluim, pp. 483-87.5

In light of the comments of the Erech Shai above, it is possible that even the Taz agrees that slander motivated by malice is sinful, despite the objective necessity of saving the innocent victim from harm, and his point is merely that it carries no liability.

We have also previously cited the position of Rav Yisrael Isser Isserlin that intent is the key criterion that determines the boundary between the category of defamation that is absolutely mandated by halachah and that which is forbidden:

וראיתי להזכיר פה ע”ד אשר כל הספרי מוסר הרעישו העולם על עון לשון הרע ואנכי מרעיש העולם להיפוך עון גדול מזה וגם הוא מצוי יותר והוא מניעת עצמו מלדבר במקום הנצרך להציל את העשוק מיד עושקו.

דרך משל במי שראה באחד שהוא אורב על חבירו בערמה על הדרך במדבר להרגו או שראה חותר מחתרת בלילה בביתו או בחנותו היתכן שימנע מלהודיע לחבירו שיזהר ממנו משום איסור לשון הרע הלא עונו גדול מנשוא שעובר על לא תעמוד על דם רעיך וכן בענין ממון הוא בכלל השבת אבידה ועתה מה לי חותר מחתרת או שרואה משרתיו גונבים ממונו בסתר או שותפו גונב דעתו בעסק או שחבירו מטעהו במקח וממכר או שלוה מעות והוא גברא דלא פרענא הוא וכן בעניני שידוך והוא יודע שהוא איש רע ובליעל ורע להתחתן עמו כולן בכלל השבת אבידת גופו וממונו

ועתה איה לנו הגדר והגבול לומר עד פה תדבר ולא יותר והכלל בזה שהדבר מסור ללב אם כונתו לרעת האחד הוא לשון הרע אבל אם כוונתו לטובת השני להצילו ולשמרו הוא מצוה רבה …

A haburah I gave about six months ago on the topic of עביד איניש דינא לנפשיה, in which I discuss some of the above, is available at the Internet Archive.

  1. סמ”ע סוף סימן תכ”א ס”ק כ”ז []
  2. ט”ז שם []
  3. ערך ש”י חו”מ סימן ת”כ []
  4. R. Daniel Z. Feldman, False Facts and True Rumors: Lashon HaRa in Contemporary Culture, pp. 99-101. []
  5. Ibid. n. 28. []
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