Q: 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 permitted to lie in order to clear the reputation of the subject of lashon hara?
A: This question should be divided into three parts:
- What is a listener’s obligation regarding her mitzvah of tochachah?
- Is one obligated to try and clear the reputation of the subject of lashon hara?
- Is it permissible to lie in order to reach this goal?
- Regarding the mitzvah of tochachah, one is obligated to gently admonish and stop the 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.
- It is commendable to clear the reputation of a subject, which simultaneously protects the listeners from the issur of ‘accepting lashon hara.’ However, we find no obligation in the sefer Chofetz Chaim for listeners to clear the subject’s reputation. (Perhaps because refuting the tale is included in the mitzvah of tochachah, and if not feasible because of the negative reaction of the talebearer, the same would hold true for clearing the subject’s reputation.) Indeed, if there is opportunity to clear the subject’s reputation after the gossiper has left, you are obligated to do so.
- It is unclear whether it is permissible to lie in order to refute the (true) negativity entirely. It is possible that once it was already told, the “miechash” — suspicion — instilled by her words will be of to’eles to the listeners (though the talebearer has transgressed the issur of lashon hara); one should therefore not lie in such a case. Understandably, if there is a possibility to judge her favorably without lying — by causing others to suspect that the subject may not be guilty, and that the details of the story may be untrue — one should do so. This approach leaves room for the listeners to be miechash — to suspect — and the subject’s reputation can thus be cleared.
The following questions and answers 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.
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