Key Words: Mentor, lashon ha-ra
The issues raised by this question serve to illuminate aspects of the technical prohibition of lashon ha-ra but also highlights the concerns that accompany an educator's responsibility to mold character as well as to impart knowledge.
The terminology employed by Rabbi Feinstein might give the impression that his concern was entirely pedagogical, i.e., that such an act is permissible but should nevertheless be discouraged because it will lead the student to draw a mistaken inference. However, that is not Rabbi Feinstein's intent. Rabbi Feinstein declares that were it the monitor's sole motivation to effect a positive change in the deportment of a misbehaving student, there would be grounds for permitting designation of a monitor and permitting him to act in his assigned role. Rabbi Feinstein cites the report of the Gemara, Arakhin 16b, stating that
"Rabbi Yohanan ben Nuri said: Many times I caused Akiva to be punished because I used to report [his negative actions] to Rabbi Gamliel ben Rebbi."From the context of the discussion in the Gemara it is evident that the motive underlying Rabbi Yohanan ben Nuri's report was a concern that Rabbi Gamliel admonish Rabbi Akiva so that the latter would modify his behavior.
In context, the Gemara appears to endorse R. Yohanan ben Nuri's conduct in this matter. Accordingly, it would appear that informing a teacher of a fellow student's misbehavior with the intent of effecting salutary change and improvement is not only permissible but is entirely appropriate. Rabbi Feinstein, however, draws a significant distinction between the two situations: R. Yohanan ben Nuri volunteered negative information on his own initiative. In such a case, Rabbi Feinstein asserts, it is more likely that the student informs the teacher because of the students' own desire to provide his friend with guidance so that the friend will improve his ways. Since the student lacks moral authority successfully to do so himself, he informs the teacher so that the teacher will admonish his friend. However, when the teacher asks a student to report a fellow student's misbehavior, the student may not at all have the laudatory intention of improving his friend's behavior (even though the teacher's motive in seeking the information is entirely proper). Since it is likely that the student will lack the proper motivation in imparting the information, the student should not be asked to disclose what has happened.1
Rabbi Feinstein further adds that the report presented in the Gemara involves outstanding individuals of exemplary character whose intentions were entirely altruistic. However, especially in the case of young children, one cannot assume that people's intentions and motivations are always noble.
In order to properly understand the ramifications of this question it is necessary to study and analyze the views of R. Yisrael Meir ha-Kohen Hafetz Hayyim. In his classic work, Shemirat ha-Lashon, Hilchot Lashon ha-Ra, kelal 4, no. 7, Hafetz Hayyim discusses certain circumstances in which there is an obligation to share negative information regarding another person. Hafetz Hayyim asserts that, if an individual sins and fails to respond to private admonition, it is permissible to rebuke him publicly and report his misdeeds to others in order to influence him to change his ways. In his commentary, Be'er Mayim Hayyim, no. 32, Hafetz Hayyim enumerates five conditions that must be met in order to render imparting such information permissible. These conditions are:
1. The individual reporting the misdeed must have first hand knowledge of the matter he is reporting.
2. It must be evident that the deed performed by the individual is question was a transgression (aveirah)
3. The report must be accurate and contain no exaggeration.
4. The motive for making the report must be exclusively salutary, i.e., so that other people will not be adversely affected by this individual's conduct or in order that the individual in question will be led to repentance.
5. The person must not make negative comments about the individual in question behind his back while flattering him in his presence.
These conditions are reiterated in Shmirat ha-Lashon, kelal 10, no. 2.2
Since it is permitted to convey negative information for a positive reason, it may well be argued that monitors who inform a teacher of the misdeeds of fellow students so that the teacher can rebuke them may be permitted to do so. For that reason, Rabbi Moshe Sternbuch, Teshuvot ve-Hanhagot, I, Hoshen Mishpat, no. 839, takes sharp issue with Rabbi Feinstein's negative attitude toward the appointment of classroom monitors. Rabbi Sternbuch argues that since relating the incident to the teacher serves a positive purpose, no prohibition of lashon ha-ra is involved and there is no reason to decry the practice. With regard to Rabbi Feinstein's contention that such an act constitutes "repugnant" behavior because it trains youngsters to be lax with regard to lashon ha-ra, Rabbi Sternbuch responded that the teacher should impress the gravity of the prohibition of lashon ha-ra upon the students and then explain that in situations in which there is a positive purpose requiring transmission of negative information, such a conversation does not fall within the ambit of the prohibition against lashon ha-ra.3
Rabbi Feinstein's concern, however, is not with regard to future behavior. His concern is that the monitor's report, if improperly motivated, constitutes an immediate transgression. In a letter addressed to Rabbi Feinstein dated 3 Adar 1, 5741 (1981) questioning Rabbi Feinstein's negative view with regard to appointing student monitors, Rabbi Munk4 cites an explicit statement of Hafetz Hayyim, Shmirat ha-Lashon, kelal 10, no. 13, permitting transmission of negative information to a person who is in a position to use the information in order to remedy harm. In response to Rabbi Munk's query, Rabbi Feinstein reiterates his view that conveyance of negative information should be limited to situations in which the individual himself or herself voluntarily and on his/her own initiative resolves to do so.5 It is clear that Rabbi Feinstein agrees that such information may be transmitted when the initiative is taken by the person having the information. As Rabbi Feinstein puts it, when the information is transmitted voluntarily, its purpose is tokhekha lishmah, or censure with sincere intent. However, argues Rabbi Feinstein, when the information is solicited, the motives prompting compliance are not likely to be of the requisite nature. According to rabbi Feinstein, permissibility of the act is contingent upon the underling motivation.
In order fully to appreciate Rabbi Feinstein's position it is necessary to focus upon one of the previously enumerated conditions stipulated by Hafetz Hayyim. The permissibility of engaging in what would otherwise be categorized as lashon ha-ra is contingent on the intention that the conversation result in a salient benefit that is otherwise unobtainable, if a G-d fearing person volunteers information on his own initiative there is reason to assume that he does so with laudable intent. However, if the information is demanded by the teacher, it becomes evident that the information is being given in response to the pressure brought to bear by the teacher. Although a useful purpose may indeed be served by sharing the information, that is clearly not the student's primary intent as evidenced by the fact that the information would not have been forthcoming had the student not been designated as a monitor and indeed such information is not forthcoming from other members of the class.
Rabbi Feinstein, it would appear, understood the statement of Hafetz Hayyim regarding "positive intention" to be taken literally as a reference to the subjective state of mind of the informant. However, Imrei Ya'akov and Rabbi Sternbuch maintain that, by definition, any statement that results in a positive effect is not in the nature of slander or lashon ha-ra and, accordingly, is permissible (or even obligatory). Thus, for Imrei Ya'akov and Rabbi Sternbuch, this exclusion from the prohibition of lashon ha-ra is not subjectively contingent upon the intent of the speaker but is objectively determined by the nature of the conversation.6
As correctly noted by Rabbi Binyamin Cohen, Hilchot Lashon ha-Ra, kelal 10, no. 11, the primary source from this exception to the prohibition concerning lashon ha-ra are the comments of Sha'arei Teshuvah, part 3, no. 228. An examination of Sha'arei Teshuvah's statement clearly indicates that subjective intent of a negative nature serves to render the conversation a prohibited form of lashon ha-ra.7
It seems to this writer that Hafetz Hayyim himself, Be'er Mayim Hayyim, Hilchot Rekhilut 9:3, states clearly that the exception to the prohibition against engaging to lashon ha-ra is limited to situations in which individual's subjective intent is positive. Nevertheless, Hafetz Hayyim rules that, at least in cases in which reticence would result in financial loss, the individual must "force" himself to convey the information with positive intent. Hafetz Hayyim writes:
It is not our intention..., that if the person does not intend a positive result he is relieved from the obligation to relate [the information] because of the prohibition of rekhilut (gossip-mongering) for it is written "Thou shalt not stand idly by the blood of thy fellow" even with regard to financial loss... Rather, it is our intention that, at the time of recounting, the individual should force himself to intend a benefit [and not recount] because of animosity...9
It is thus readily apparent that Rabbi Feinstein's insistence that the subjective state of mind of the informant is crucial is confirmed in the text of Hafetz Hayyim's writings.
As an alternative, teachers may be advised that, if it is necessary for them to leave the classroom, the class should be place on the honor system with the admonition that if it becomes evident that the class cannot be trusted there will be negative consequences. Such a procedure would not require a monitor to discover the identity of particular student who misbehave. Educators must always be aware not only of the technical parameters of the laws of lashon ha-ra but also of the effects of conduct in molding and guiding character and personality development.10
1. Rabbi Feinstein's position is accepted unquestioningly by Rabbi Baruch Rakovsky, Sefer ha-Katan ve-Hilkhotav (Jerusalem, 1996), III, 117.
2. See also Rabbi Binyamin Cohen's excellent work, Sefer Hafetz Hayyim im Peirush Helkat Binyamin, Bi'urim, Be'er Mayim Hayyim, kelal 4, no. 34, in which discrepancies in the conditions stipulated by Hafetz Hayyim are analyzed in detail.
3. Rabbi Sternbuch's analysis can be further understood in light of his comments elsewhere, Teshuvot ve-Hanhagot, I, no. 558, in which he asserts that on occasion there is a mitzvah to impart negative information. Thus in some situations in which there is a positive purpose there may be a mitzvah to impart information. Accordingly, it follows that intrinsic to the pedagogical duties of the teacher is the obligation to train students to recognize when indeed there is a mitzvah in imparting negative information. See also the similar comments of Pithei Teshuvah, Orah Hayyim, no. 156.
4. Sakhar ve-Ha'anashah be-Hinnukh, addendum, p. 105.
5. Rabbi Feinstein's reply is published ibid., pp. 107-108.
6. For a further analysis of this issue see R. Binyamin Cohen, Helkat Binyamin, Hilchot Lashon ha-Ra, kelal 10, no. 11 and Hilchot Lashon ha-Ra, kelal 4, Bi'urim al Be'er Mayim Hayyim, no. 53.
7. See also the comments of Sema, Hoshen Mishpat 421:278 and Taz, ad locum, who disagree with regard to situations in which it is permitted to strike someone and question whether it is necessary that there be a positive intention as well. See also the comments of Hafetz Hayyim, Hilchot Rekhilut, kelal 9, Be'er Mayim Hayyim, no. 28, note, and the comments of R. Binyamin Cohen, ad locum, Bi'urim, no. 15.
8. See R. Binyamin Cohen, Hilchot Rekhilut, Kelal 9, Bi'urim, no. 15, who notes that both Mishnat ha-Hakhamim, Hilchot De'ot, chap. 6, and Yavin Shemu'ah 34b, also maintain that it is necessary to have a positive intention.
9. See also the remarks of Rabbi Chaim Menachem Heilbron, Mevakshei Torah, vol. 24, no. 3 (Heshvan, 5759), p. 135, sec. 3.
10. See the comments of Rabbi Munk, Sakhar ve-Ha'anashah, p. 5, for a similar suggestion and for a discussion of the success of various pedagogic techniques that may be employed in such circumstances.