This article is adapted from my upcoming sefer,“Shmiras Haloshon in Today’s World”. All halachos mentioned herein are complex and part of a larger framework. The purpose of the article is to raise awareness of these essential halachos. Hence, one should not draw any practical conclusions without first consulting a rav.
When It Depends on the Listener
We explained in an earlier article that the basic definition of Loshon Hora is information which can cause physical or emotional harm. In the previous article, we added that the Torah does not allow for engaging in derogatory speech, even when no harm will come from the information. Thus, it emerges that it is not considered Loshon Hora when the speaker has no malicious intentions and the words themselves will not have negative repercussions.
At times, whether or not the information will cause harm depends on the audience. Some listeners will view the information as negative, whereas others will not. Moreover, there are times when there will be no harm if an individual discovers the information, but there could be damage if it becomes known to the public. Since the speaker cannot control or monitor the spread of the information, it is generally forbidden to relate it, as it may reach the ears of the wrong person. In this article, we will discuss a dispensation which is limited to a situation in which the information will definitely not spread in a way that it causes damage.
According to the Chofetz Chaim, it is permitted to say Loshon Hora when all of the following conditions apply:
- The speaker has no intention to degrade the subject.
- The speaker knows that the listener will not lose any respect for the subject of the information when he hears it.
- The listener is a Torah scholar who is in control of his words and never discloses confidential information.
When these three conditions are met, no embarrassment or harm can come from relating the information. Therefore, relating it is permitted. Even if the subject of the information would prefer that it not be shared, it is not considered Loshon Hora, as no harm can come from it.
Application: Ba’alei Teshuva
Revealing that Someone is a Ba’al teshuva
One contemporary application of this dispensation involves relating that a now-religious individual was formerly not religious, (known today as a ba’al teshuva). It is commonly assumed that it is permissible to relate that one is a ba’al teshuva. However, doing so may be prohibited, as it can cause embarrassment or other damage to the subject of the information. Based on what we have learned, it is only permitted if all three of the aforementioned conditions are met.
Note that in some situations, the third condition is not necessary. When the information is said in a way that it is not embarrassing to the ba’al teshuva, and it is clear that nobody in the community where the word can get out would lose respect for him, no damage is being caused. In this case, it is irrelevant if the information will get out to others, because no one who discovers the information will view it as negative.
Naturally, the dispensation mentioned here to omit the third condition assumes that the ba’al teshuva is not embarrassed by the spread of the information. However, if his past is embarrassing to him, it is forbidden to relate the information to someone who might reveal it to others. Here, it is possible that the ba’al teshuva will discover that people know about his past, and he will suffer emotional pain. (Note that as long as the subject is not embarrassed by it, it may be related even if he prefers that the information is not spread, as mentioned above.)
If the Ba’al teshuva Does Not Mind
If the ba’al teshuva has made it clear that he truly does not mind if people are aware of his ba’al teshuva status, the prohibition does not apply, regardless of what the listener will think. This is a general rule regarding Loshon Hora, as we will explain in another article. Nonetheless, the information may not be related in a degrading manner even in this case, as that is something that would definitely offend the ba’al teshuva.
Known to the Public
Another mitigating factor may help explain why it is common practice to relate that an individual is a ba’al teshuva. In a future article we will explain that under certain conditions there is no prohibition to relate something already known to the public at large). In many situations, it can already be well known that an individual is a ba’al teshuva. It may be that the person himself had revealed this information to many friends, that he davens at a shul which is mostly made up of ba’alei teshuva, or that it is clear to those who he comes into contact with that he did not have a yeshiva education. In such a situation, the prohibition is greatly limited.
However, consider the scenario of a ba’al teshuva who went to yeshiva at a young age and is fully acclimated to the Torah community. Such a person generally would not want his friends to find out that he is a ba’al teshuva. The information is not well known, and it may embarrass him. In this instance, it is certainly forbidden to reveal that he is a ba’al teshuva, unless all three aforementioned conditions are met.
For a Constructive Purpose
Even when none of the dispensations apply, it is still permitted to relate that one is a ba’al teshuva when it is for a constructive purpose (known as To’eles). There are numerous reasons why it may be necessary for one to tell another that an individual is a ba’al teshuva. For instance, the listener may need to know that the ba’al teshuva is sensitive to certain topics of discussion, or will need extra guidance in the performance of specific mitzvos.
However, applying the dispensation of To’eles is complex, and a halachic authority should always be consulted.