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.
Obviously 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.
The Shulhan Arukh formulates the law of slander as follows:
If a man spits on his neighbor, he is liable to pay damages, but he should not pay if he only spits on his neighbor's garments or if he shames him verbally. But the courts everywhere and at all times should introduce legislation for this matter as they see fit. Some say that he is to be placed under the ban until he pacifies the victim of his insult, and some say that he is to be flogged. One who slanders his neighbor is to be treated as one who puts him to shame verbally. If a man taunts his neighbor by saying: “I am not an apostate,” “I am not a criminal,” even if he did not add “like you” it is as if he added “like you.” If he said: “You behave like a bastard” or “You are like a bastard,” it is nothing. But some authorities disagree, holding that if he said “You are like a bastard” it is as if he had said: “You are a bastard.” . . . If a man slanders those who sleep in the dust [i.e., the dead], he must take upon himself to fast and to repent, and he should be fined by the courts as they see fit. If they are buried nearby he should go to their graves to ask their pardon ... If a man calls his neighbor a slave or a bastard and it is true, he is not culpable. But if the matter cannot be determined, even though he heard others speak in this way, he cannot be exonerated.
The above is from the legal point of view. Morally, the slanderer meets with the strictest condemnation. A rabbinic saying has it that a habitual slanderer is unworthy of “receiving the divine countenance” in the World to Come. Whoever makes a habit of speaking slander, say the Rabbis, acts as though he denies the existence of God (Babylonian Talmud, Arakhin 15b).
The scholar who, more than anyone else in the past few hundred years, devoted his life to combating lashon ha-ra, “the evil tongue,” as slander is called, was Israel Meir Kagan, the Hafetz Hayyim. Among other matters mentioned by the Hafetz Hayyim in his comprehensive works on the subject is that Jewish law makes no distinction between libel and slander, between written and verbal calumny. He demonstrates that the prohibition of “evil talk” includes: listening to it, making libelous remarks about a competitor’s merchandise, and praising a person to his enemies, who will react by speaking ill of him. According to the Hafetz Hayyim, defamation of a whole group, not only of an individual, is forbidden.
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