Is it religiously permissible in Jewish law for a(n) (Orthodox) Jewish woman to make derogatory statements about another Jew (i.e., listing the individual's full name) on a blog that is viewable by the entire public? Wouldn't this be lashon hara (evil speech) or motzei shem ra (causing a bad name), especially in such a large forum?
The wording of the question suggests that there is a specific case you have in mind. Without knowing the facts of that case, it is hard for me to write with confidence. Perhaps there is a rabbi in your community whom you can show the blog entry? But to what end? If you are not the one who posted the blog, what will the rabbi’s verdict accomplish? The above being said, I will try to briefly respond to the abstract issues your question raises.
The prohibition against “lashon ha-rah” – or spreading damaging or derogatory information about another individual or community, and the prohibition against “motzi shem rah” – spreading false information that is damaging or derogatory is indeed prohibited by halakhah. The exception to the prohibition of lashon harah is a “to’elet” – an important practical need to share information (e.g. telling a neighbor that a certain contractor she may hire is not trustworthy). Concern for these laws, and the underlying values they promote, is a distinguishing feature of some Orthodox communities – something about which they deserve to be very proud.
There are two additional issues that your question raises, neither of which, to my knowledge, have been adequately discussed in halakhic literature (although I have sat through thought provoking shiurim by young Torah scholars addressing these topics). The first issue concerns the status of journalism and its relationship to the laws of lashon harah. In the West, a robust freedom of the press has long been understood as a key component of freedom and a necessary tool to fight corruption and oppression. But investigative journalism requires collecting and then spreading damaging or derogatory information. Can journalism flourish within the narrow halakhic guidelines of “to’elet?” The second issue raised by your question is the status of blogs. Are they journalism? Are they merely forums for narcissism? This is an evolving area of American law, and I suspect halakhic sources will be written in the coming generation that explore the status of blogs in halakhah.
Our Tradition teaches that lashon ha'ra, hateful or destructive speech, is a serious affront to human dignity and incompatible with God's vision of a community based on justice and compassion. We are taught in the Book of Psalms: "Who is the person who desires life, who loves days of seeing goodness? Guard your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking maliciously" (Ps. 34:13-14).
Specifically, the Jewish Tradition is very strict about the prohibition on shaming others in public. Maimonides, the greatest Jewish legal and philosophical of the Middle Ages writes: “It is forbidden to embarrass one’s fellow, particularly in public… it is a great sin” (Mishnah Torah, Laws of Conduct 6:8). The Rabbis of the Talmud even go so far as to say that for one who shames another in public, it is as if they have spilled the other’s blood (Babylonian Talmud, Bava Metzia 58b). Derogatory statements posted on a publicly accessible website could absolutely fall under this category and would thus constitute a serious violation of Jewish law and ethics.
One final note, the prohibition on lashon ha’ra is neither more nor less stringent for those who identify as Orthodox as for any other Jew. Whatever our denominational affiliation, we are all obligated to guard our tongues and use our gift of speech for holiness rather than for destruction.
Thanks for the question! It seems to me that, making public derogatory comments (including in blogs, public forums, etc.) would be inappropriate from a Halakhic standpoint, especially if said individual(s) are not part of the conversation. So if I write something derogatory about, say, a fellow rabbi, or a congregant, in my blog, I should expect to do some serious tshuvah. The Babylonian Talmud has some choice words for a person who deliberately embarrasses a fellow Jew: “Better it is for man to cohabit with a doubtful married woman rather than that he should publicly shame his neighbor.” And “Better a man throw himself into a fiery furnace than publicly put his neighbor to shame.” (Both Baba Metzia 59b)
Where things get sticky are around public personae. Am I permitted to say something derogatory about a person such as a political candidate, or a celebrity? One is permitted to rebuke an individual (in a loving fashion), so better to criticize the behavior than the individual. For example, if you look at Shmuley Boteach’s articles on The Huffington Post you’ll see that he criticizes behavior or actions; rarely does he say anything nasty about a person. Doing so also makes it more a description of our own experience rather than an opportunity to put someone down, as the Chofeitz Chaim would suggest.
Finally, there is the issue of posting comments to a person’s Facebook wall or tagging someone, or using some other social media to engage a person. Witness what has happened at Mayim Bialik’s Facebook page and her response (that is, to remove herself). While it might be tempting to see that as ‘engaging’ the individual and ‘rebuking’ them on their choices, the public nature of the posting makes it really no different than the kind of public embarrassment that might take place in the street.
And by the way, while the question is posed viz. an Orthodox woman making the comments about Jews, it would seem to me that these apply to anyone regardless of movement; and while the Halakha sees embarrassing a Jew as being a pretty terrible thing, embarrassing a non-Jew is also regarded as something that promotes discord, is unethical, and should be avoided as well.
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