Rabbi Shimon Kessin
The prohibition of listening and believing
The Torah prohibits the revelation of information that can create damage (Loshon Hora) or animosity (Rechilus). Both of these prohibitions relate to the speaker or the revealer of the information. The Torah also prohibits for one to listen to Loshon Hora and Rechilus or to believe what he hears as being absolutely true115. If he is told slanderous information about someone (Loshon Hora), he cannot believe it. If he is told information about what someone said about him or about what someone did to him, which could make him angry (Rechilus), he cannot believe it. Rather, he must remain highly skeptical of this revelation and possess serious doubts about its validity. This prohibition is called the prohibition of “kabala” or believing. Since he cannot believe, he should, with all effort, prevent himself from even listening to such conversations in the first place.
The reason for this prohibition: lack of credibility
Why should believing Loshon Hora or Rechilus be prohibited? We can understand that slandering someone else or inciting hostility is wrong but if what we hear sounds true, why can’t we believe it? What should we do, surgically remove the information from our brains! Shall we deny a revelation that seems to be true and make believe that it is not?
The answer is that you can never really believe Loshon Hora and Rechilus that is told to you, no matter who told it or under what conditions, unless you investigate it thoroughly yourself116. Simply put, the Torah claims that all such remarks lack credibility unless proven otherwise. If you wish to believe any statements besides damaging ones, you can, but regarding statements that can hurt someone or create hostility, you cannot117. You no longer have that option. But why should these remarks always lack real credibility? The answer is that it is possible to create false impressions even from statements that on the surface appear to be true. How is this possible?
It is possible to lie even while telling the truth
It is a well-known fact that when a witness is called in to testify in the secular courts, he is forced to take an oath that he will tell the truth. The oath that is administered is not a simple one. It goes as follows. “Do you, the witness, swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?” You will notice that the oath is divided into three parts. Why is this so? It is because the secular courts understand that you can deceive even while telling the truth. The three parts of the oath are designed to prevent this. Let us explain this.
The possibility of lying
- “Do you swear to tell the truth?”- Since every person may have a reason to lie, he is asked to swear that he is not lying118. He may be lying to get revenge on the defendant. He may be lying to benefit himself in some way if the defendant is convicted. This part of the oath protects against this possibility, the possibility of lying.
The possibility of omission
- “Do you swear to tell the whole truth?”- Sometimes a person may tell selected truths and conveniently leave out other facts, which if stated, would create a different impression than that of the original, selected statements.
Little Malky comes to her mother crying that her brother, Sruly kicked her in the knee. The mother goes to Sruly and demands to know if this is true. Sruly responds that it is true but adds that Malky conveniently left out the fact that first she came to him and banged him in the head with a pot.
Was Malky lying? No, but she wasn’t telling the whole truth either and by omitting certain facts, the truth of the event was distorted. This part of the oath protects against this possibility, the possibility of omission.
The possibility of unwarranted and doubtful additions
- “Do you swear to tell nothing but the truth?”- Sometimes a person says the truth but in order to make the story more cohesive, credible or exciting he will embellish it with his own “facts” that he assumes to be true. These additions, however, can actually distort the truth. This part of the oath protects against this scenario, that is, the possibility of unwarranted and doubtful additions.
We see from the above that a person can distort the truth even when he is not lying. This can be done by strategically leaving information out (omissions) or by adding in extras that don’t belong there (commissions). There is yet one more way where distortions can occur. This includes:
The possibility of interpreting events negatively
- Interpretations – The conversations of most people are not based on facts but rather on their particular perceptions and interpretations of events. When you listen to and believe in a person’s remarks, you are actually only accepting his or her particular perceptions and interpretations and not the real and established facts. These interpretations may be only half- true. There may be alternative interpretations that may be much more accurate and true. They therefore lack true credibility and to believe in them is identical to believing in something that may not be completely true.
Hearing one side of the story
A special case of this type of distortion is when you listen to and believe in only one side of the story. All disputes and disagreements between people are rooted in the ways that each one sees things. Rarely is one view totally correct and the other totally false. There is almost always some truth to both. When someone tells you about someone’s negative behavior towards him, it is only his opinion of that person’s behavior. There is always another side to the story, that of the other person. To believe one side without knowing the other side is to risk believing only a partial truth. The other side must also be known in order to obtain the whole truth of a conflict.
It is now clear why believing Loshon Hora or Rechilus is prohibited. Whenever you hear such a statement it may lack credibility because,
- The person may be lying.
- He may have omitted important details that could change the impression.
- He may have added assumed details that distort the truth.
- He may be interpreting the event in such a way as to be negative
- It may be only one side of the story.
Two circumstances when one is permitted to believe Loshon Hora
Only if you are willing to investigate the events behind the remarks can you know the truth of them. Otherwise they must remain in doubt. There are two circumstances, however, when you can believe the Loshon Hora you hear from a speaker without any investigation (we are assuming that you have permission to listen in the first place).
- The first is where the speaker is talking Loshon Hora only about himself and does not include anyone else.
- The second is where you have also experienced personally, the identical situation being described with the person being talked about and you can therefore verify what the speaker is saying based on your own observations.