Moshe Bleich
Rabbi Bleich teaches Jewish Law at Touro College and is a member of the editorial committee of Machon Mishnat Rav Aharon [Kotler]
Ten Da'at, A Journal of Jewish Education Vol. XII, Elul 5759, Summer 1999

Key Words: Mentor, lashon ha-ra

The Dilemma
In yeshivot no less so than in other schools, teachers of elementary grade classes occasionally leave the classroom for brief periods. When that occurs it is common for the teacher to leave an assignment and to appoint a student monitor to supervise performance of the assigned work and to assure that discipline is maintained. It is the monitor's duty to record misbehavior and to report occurrences of inappropriate conduct to the teacher when he/she returns to the classroom. The question that presents itself is whether the appointment of such a monitor and charging a monitor with such duties is prohibited by halacha. In reporting negative information regarding his/her classmates is the monitor guilty of transgressing the prohibition concerning lashon ha-ra or improper speech?

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.

Reb Moshe's Approach
The salient question has been addressed in a somewhat different context by the late Rabbi Moshe Feinstein in a responsum published in his Iggerot Moshe, Yoreh De'ah, II, no. 103. Rabbi Feinstein discusses the question of whether it is permissible for a teacher to ask students to identify a fellow student who behaved in an inappropriate manner. In that responsum, Rabbi Feinstein does not brand such an act as forbidden but categorizes it as "repugnant" (mekho'ar) and remarks that a child who identifies a fellow student as a miscreant will become lax with regard to the prohibition of lashon ha-ra.

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.

The Problem of Leshon HaRa
Turning directly to our subject, Rabbi Meir Munk, in his useful work, Sachar ve-Ha'anashah be-Hinukh (Jerusalem, 1982), p. 54 cogently notes that appointing monitors who are required to report on the misbehavior of fellow students involves the monitor in a course of action that is neither spontaneous nor voluntary. Since the monitor's report is not an expression of the monitor's own concern, Rabbi Feinstein would not have approved appointing a monitor. Rabbi Munk further observes that designating a monitor creates fertile ground for other potential infractions as well. A child may return a negative report regarding classmates with whom he/she has been involved in a dispute in order to settle a personal score and thereby violate the prohibition of lo tikom "you shall not take revenge" (Leviticus 19:18).

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.

Critique of Reb Moshe
Rabbi Feinstein's analysis has been criticized and disputed by Rabbi Ya'akov Meir Stern, Imrei Ya'akov, Yoreh De'ah 245:10, Bi'urim s.v. lo yakeh (pp. 37-39). Imrei Ya'akov argues that if one may relay negative information on one's own initiative in order to improve another person's behavior, it should certainly be permitted to do so when a teacher requests the same information in order to counsel a student in an effort to effect a change in a student's comportment. Indeed, under such circumstances, argues Imrei Ya'akov, there is an even greater likelihood that disclosure of the misbehavior may have a positive impact.

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

The Question of Intent
The view that, to be permitted, a negative statement regarding another person must be accompanied by a positive intent, and not merely have the potential for a positive result, is also espoused by Rabbi Chaim David Halevi, Aseh Lekha Rav, I, no. 71. Rabbi Halevi observes that, ordinarily, school children do not convey reports concerning fellow students to teachers and principals. Children do not usually perceive the resultant punishment as beneficence designed to instill proper character traits. Accordingly, one may assume young children will not have motives that are exclusively salutary when they "tell tale" on their friends. Moreover, he adds, only an individual of whom one can say "All his actions are for the sake of heaven" may avail himself of the exclusion permitting negative conversation designed to promote a salutary effect. It should be added that Rabbi Halevi's position goes beyond that of Rabbi Feinstein in that Rabbi Feinstein permits a student voluntarily to report inappropriate behavior while stating that the student should not be requested to do so, whereas Rabbi Halevi recommends that a student should never avail himself of the option to do so.8

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 noted, a majority of authorities maintain that even a verbal negative communication that has objective potential for achieving a salutary effect is prohibited if the intention of the speaker is not exclusively positive. Even if one were to rely upon the lenient position that permits such disclosure in order to achieve a salutary purpose, encouragement of such conduct would be pedagogically unwise. Young children are unlikely to be able to distinguish between the nature of the report they are being asked to deliver and actual lashon ha-ra.

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.

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