At a family simchah, I listened in shock to the gossip of one of the guests. What she said was true, but clearly without purpose, and therefore forbidden to relate in the presence of her audience around the table. I left the place immediately to avoid transgressing listening to evil speech. Later I wondered if I acted correctly. I could have rejected the woman’s negativity and tried to refute her words. Maybe I should have lied in order to uproot the lashon hara from the hearts of the listeners. Is it indeed permissible to lie in order to clear the reputation of the subject of lashon hara?
This question should be divided into three:
Q1: What is a listener’s obligation regarding the mitzvah of tochachah?
A1: Regarding the mitzvah of tochachah, one is obligated to gently admonish and stop a conversation in a respectable manner. If it is likely that the rebuke will anger the talebearer and will cause her to add to the negativity, it is preferable to remain silent and leave the place.
Q2: Is there an obligation to try and clear the reputation of the subject of lashon hara?
A2: There’s no obligation in the sefer Chofetz Chaim for listeners to clear a subject’s reputation, but it is commendable to do so, in order to protect listeners from the issur of believing lashon hara. (The reason why it isn’t an obligation may be that refuting the tale is included in the mitzvah of tochachah. But if you can’t refute the tale because of the talebearer’s negative reaction, you won’t be able to clear the subject’s reputation.) If there is an opportunity to clear the subject’s reputation after the narrator has left, you’re obligated to do so.
Q3: Is it permissible to lie in order to reach this goal?
A3: It is unclear whether it is permissible to lie in order to refute accurate negativity. It may be that once people have heard the information, the suspicion that the talebearer implanted with her words will be of toeles to the listeners. (All the issurim of lashon hara for the talebearer nonetheless apply.) You should therefore not lie in a case like this. If there is a possibility of judging the subject favorably without lying, by causing others to suspect that the subject isn’t guilty and that the details of the story may be untrue, you should do so. This approach leaves room for listeners to be “meichish” — only suspect the truth of the matter, and the subject’s reputation can thus be cleared.
The questions and answers above were taken from the Mishmeres Hasholom pamphlet in Israel. For details and inquiries please e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 972-2 5379160.
The views expressed are of the individual author. Readers are encouraged to consult their own posek for guidance.