by Rabbi Danny rich
Liberal Judaism’s senior rabbi begins the first of a new series by analysing recent allegations on social media…
Judaism had the good fortune to be founded before modern media but it, nevertheless, established principles that have something to say about the current trend for false or salacious claims against one’s opponents.
Take the controversies surrounding claims made by Labour’s deputy leader Tom Watson against the late Leon Brittan and sordid pig-related allegations against David Cameron in a recent biography on the prime minister.
There is, of course, a distinction between false claims and stories that are salacious, but nevertheless true. Lying is a well-established prohibition found in Leviticus 19:11: “You shall not deny the truth, or lie to one another.”
The reporting of salacious but true claims is a little more complicated… but not much! The same Holiness Code of Leviticus 19:16 declares: “You shall not go as a talebearer – or a gossip – among your people”, which is well understood to most of us in the category of lashon hara.
Such claims are more clearly condemned under the Halachic principle of halbanat panim, which prohibits public humiliation, particularly, but not exclusively, of a repentant sinner.
The Babylonian Talmud remarks: “One who publically humiliates another is as if they had shed blood.” Nevertheless, there appear to be individuals who seek publicity and/or have a pretence of moral living while engaging in behaviour which might preclude them from, for example, public service or simply widespread acclaim. In such cases, individuals or the media may declare a ‘public interest’ in making salacious, but true, claims.
The definition of ‘public interest’ is itself a matter of controversy and it is not clear who should be its guardian. In an historical context, democracy has served well the interests of Judaism and the Jewish community.
The value of individual rights and personal liberty within the law has invariably been accompanied by the freedom of conscience and the non-interference with the religious belief and practices of minority communities.
It may ultimately be true that the price of democracy is a press which promulgates salacious claims. Judaism may condemn it and individual Jews may best fulfil the relevant mitzvot by simply not purchasing the media that permits the publication of salacious stories. Yet there remains an unease.
The prophet Malachi (2:6), himself a messenger or communicator, observed of the ideal priest: “The law of truth was in his mouth” – which reminds all of those who wield influence of their great responsibility.
Let us hope that this trend for the making of false and/or salacious claims against one’s opponents will soon be seen by those who practice it as unbecoming, irresponsible and ultimately morally sapping of the decent society we all seek.