-Rabbi Yuval Sherlo-
The dearest thing to a person is his good name. The fact that later in the book of Vayikra (Leviticus) the Torah juxtaposes two commandments, “You shall not go around as a gossipmonger amidst your people; You shall not stand by [the shedding of] your fellow's blood,” teaches that there is a connection between slander and causing the death of another. Our Sages taught that “It is better for a person to be cast into a fiery furnace than to embarrass his fellow in public,” thus emphasizing, in their unique way, the extreme severity of defiling someone’s good name.
Every person holds a basic right to a good name, to a presumption of innocence and not to be dishonored or embarrassed in public. Anyone who infringes upon this right undermines one of the basic foundational precepts of human dignity and personal identity.
It is for this reason that Rambam (Maimonides) wrote in the laws of De’ot: “Our Sages said: There are three sins for which retribution is exacted from a person in this world and [for which] he is [nonetheless] denied a portion in the world to come: idol worship, forbidden sexual relations, and murder. Lashon horah (slandering) is equivalent to all of them.” Rambam thus continued in the path laid down by the Sages in their stubborn and uncompromising fight against misuse of the powers of the tongue. The Hasidim are wont to say that in the previous parasha (Shemini) the Torah taught us what we are forbidden to eat, in the context of the laws of kashrut that are widely adhered to by Jews everywhere.
Were it only that people would be so careful about what they emit from their mouths as about what they put in.
The struggle for purity of the tongue and gentleness of speech is not geared toward ruining any possibility of harsh and incisive public discourse, of confronting wrongdoing and evil, of engaging in criticism, etc. Integral to molding a society’s identity in the spirit of justice is the creation of a balance between freedom of speech and the people’s right to know on the one hand, and the laws prohibiting slander and the protection of privacy and dignity of the other on the other hand. One of the ethical tests that each society must face is rooted in the question of whether it has found the proper method of permitting public debate and eliminating evil from within through promotion of liberty and freedom, while at the same time preserving human dignity and what amounts to each individual’s most valuable personal asset, their good name.
Our parasha discusses the metzorah (leper). The Torah demands that those afflicted with Tzara’at (biblical leprosy) be excluded from the camp and sit in solitude, away from all others, in tattered clothing and untended hair. The metzorah must call out to all comers and notify them “I am impure, I am impure.” Upon first glance, the command to distance the metzorah from the camp appears to be a safeguard for public sanitation, similar to the quarantine of a patient afflicted with an infectious disease. However, upon further examination of the laws of the metzorah, it is clear that his exclusion from society has nothing to do with disease prevention and that the Tzara’at is not that type of disease at all.
Proof of this assessment can be found in the Torah’s instruction that a person covered in Tzara’at, without any clean limb or patch of skin, is considered clean: “then the kohen shall look [at it]. And, behold! the Tzara'at has covered all his flesh, he shall pronounce [the person with] the lesion clean. He has turned completely white; he is clean.” The commandment to distance the metzorah from society, then, cannot be seen as an attempt to maintain public health.
This is the reason that our Sages interpreted the word metzorah as an acronym for motzi shem ra, one who disparages another, thus emphasizing that exclusion of the metzorah from the camp is direct retribution for his actions. The metzorah caused his fellow to distance himself from the person who the metzorah slandered, and the metzorah therefore must endure the same experience, sitting in solitude as a social outcast. The impurity of the metzorah and his exclusion from society are therefore to be seen as part of the battle against lashon hara and the emphasis placed on the severity of this social wrong.
Today’s State of Israel has yet to complete its molding of the proper path in this regard, both from a legal and an ethical perspective. On the legal side, there are a variety of proposed bills, leading in both directions. On the one hand, these look to fortify the protection afforded the individual and attack the slanderers, sometimes even going to the extreme by silencing public discourse and criticism of elected officials.
On the other hand, there are proposed laws that sometimes go to extreme lengths to preserve freedom of speech, even at the expense of the individual who is the ultimate casualty. However, the law is not the only plain on which the campaign must be waged. Ethics are not born solely of the law, but rather they are a product of a general public mentality in which people act in such a way so as not to harm others, all the while preserving the ability to maintain a lively and appropriate public discourse.
When we, as a society, strive toward, and ultimate achieve, justice in this sphere as well, thus creating proper protection for each individual and their liberty, both from a perspective of freedom of speech and from that of preservation of each person’s good name, we will know that we have laid down another rung in the ladder leading to a proper and correct society.
Rabbi Yuval Sherlo is a member of the executive board of Tzohar and the head of the hesder yeshiva in Petach Tikva .