Jewish law's response to slander over the ages moved from strong disapproval to imposing real communal consequences.


Reprinted from Louis Jacobs, The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.

The strongest moral disapproval is expressed in Jewish teachings of slander in all its forms. The prohibition against going around as a talebearer is stated in the Holiness Code in Leviticus (Leviticus 19:16). The prophet Jeremiah castigates those “who go about with slanders and who speak iniquity” (Jeremiah 9:2-4). The Psalmist declares: “Who is the man that desires life, and loves days, that he may see good therein? Keep your tongue from evil, and your lips from speaking guile. Depart from evil and do good, seek peace and pursue it” (Psalms 34:13-15). 

It is somewhat odd that Jewish law, as distinct from moral preachment, is less clear on slander as a crime punishable in the courts. There is the case mentioned in the Bible (Deuteronomy 22:13-18) of a man who slanderously casts doubts on the chastity of his wife. He is to be punished with a fine and with chastisement. Yet, according to strict talmudic law, there is no legal redress for slanderous statements, apart from this particular case. The reason is that, in talmudic law, there is redress only for injuries inflicted directly on another person, not, as in slander, where the harm, though it can be excessive, is done indirectly.

jewish slander viewsObviously a situation where slanderers could get away with it could not be tolerated. In the Middle Ages the authorities did legislate against slander, relying on the talmudic ruling (Sanhedrin 46a) that the courts can assume powers not normally given to them by the law where it is for the benefit of society. Because the whole development of the law of slander is based on the emergency powers granted to the courts, various penalties were introduced in different places and at different times. But in the sixteenth century, it became possible for the Shulhan Arukh (Hoshen Mishpat, 420.38) to formulate the laws about slander, though these are still not categorical and a good deal is left to the discretion of the court.

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Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.

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