Rumors: When and How Is It Appropriate to Pass One On?

The Jewish tradition sets a very high bar for considering a rumor worthy of being transmitted.

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Some might argue that since you do not know for a fact that the negative details you have heard are true, you should say nothing. Others, myself included, feel that saying nothing does not seem morally right. After all, does your lack of definitive knowledge require you to stand by and wait for your friend to lose money, or to become a victim of malpractice?

There is an intermediate moral position, one that neither permits the random spreading of rumors nor categorically forbids passing on rumors you don’t definitively know to be true: to warn your friend of what you have heard, but not claim that what you are telling him or her is established fact. For example, in the case of the money manager, say to your friend something like this: “Before you invest money with so-and-so, make sure that you check with several others who’ve invested with him. I’ve heard his track record is spotty. I don’t know this for a fact, but it would be naïve to dismiss out of hand what one has heard people say.”

By emphasizing that what you have heard is hearsay, and that your friend should first investigate the matter, you protect the potential investor while avoiding, to the extent possible, damaging the reputation of the person being discussed.

Professor Michael Berger, who is also an ordained rabbi, is not fully comfortable with the solution I’ve proposed: “In my view, making the sort of comment you suggest is appropriate only if the other person will do due diligence and check out the person. But if your friend’s reaction to your ‘warning’ is ‘I don’t need this headache,’ and just dumps the person, then, if you have heard these rumors from a possible slanderer, [to choose one example] you become complicit in ruining the financial manager’s livelihood. It seems to me that the right thing to do is to insist that your friend check the person out because it’s the prudent thing to do--and not because of something you have heard.”

What Jewish tradition teaches us is that even when it comes to passing on a rumor, there is an ethical--and an unethical--way to act.

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Rabbi Joseph Telushkin

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin is the author of Jewish Literacy and Words that Hurt, Words that Heal, along with other widely-read books on Judaism and the "Rabbi Daniel Winter" murder mysteries. He lives in New York City and lectures widely throughout North America.