Ruining someone's reputation is pretty much the worst thing you can do. And sometimes, our principles force us to give public rebuke. How do we balance these values and, ultimately, uphold the sanctity of a good name?
Protecting a Good Name
When is it acceptable to ruin someone’s reputation?
I don’t know how theoretical this question was for our ancestors; but today, when Twitter posts hit the headlines and cell phone videos feature on the nightly news, the power all of us have over one another is tremendous.
And so we ask, if not for ourselves then for others not far removed: When do we rightly drag another person’s name through the mud?
In our tradition, this is a serious and significant question. Many are familiar with the famous trifecta of prohibitions that a person should die before violating: idolatry, forbidden sexual relations, and bloodshed.
This difficult and complicated moral arena takes center stage in this week’s Torah portion.
As our parashah opens, God instructs Moses to send twelve spies to Canaan to scope out the land before the Hebrews arrive en masse. The band of scouts returns with reports of the land’s epic proportions. It is prodigiously bountiful, but it is also inhabited by giants. Two of the spies, Caleb and Joshua, insist, “We shall surely prevail!” (Num. 14:30). But the others demur. They say, “We cannot go up against those people, for they are stronger than us” (Num. 14:31). These ten spies give in to their fear, doubting that God could deliver on God’s promise.
But according to the midrash, the sin is what comes next. וַיֹּצִיאוּ דִּבַּת הָאָרֶץ, “Then they spread calumnies about the land” (Num. 14:32). This is the sin of slander, of denigration and debasement. The spies lie about the land and its inhabitants, and no amount of encouragement from Joshua and Caleb can stand up against their defamation. The people believe the false reports of the ten fearful spies and refuse to enter into the Promised Land. On account of this dissemination of falsehoods, the entire People of Israel are condemned to die in the desert until a new generation can grow up to fulfill God’s purpose.
A midrash extracts from this story a moral that spans the ages:
If the Holy Blessed One punished the spies for insulting the land, which has no mouth to speak, no reaction, and no shame, then all the more so would the Holy Blessed One punish someone who speaks ill of his friend and shames him.
We cannot shame another in public. Indeed, this applies even for those who have committed a grave wrong. According to Maimonides (Mishneh Torah, Human Dispositions 6:8), a master compiler of Jewish law, a person who has sinned must be rebuked privately rather than shamed for their wrongdoing in public. It doesn’t matter what they did: They must be given the opportunity to repent.
By these guidelines, we might conclude that it’s never appropriate to tarnish someone’s reputation. But we all know that there are exceptions, that there are people whose actions are so vile that they should rightly be known first and foremost by their sins.
Maimonides knows this as well. According to his teaching, there are two conditions that authorize us to publicly shame someone. First, their transgression must be בְּדִבְרֵי שָׁמַיִם, related to divine matters. And secondly, they must be given an opportunity to repent in private. He writes:
If the sin concerns heavenly matters, and if the sinner does not repent after being rebuked privately, he should be shamed publicly, and his sin should be proclaimed, and harsh words should be used in his presence, and he should be shamed and cursed till he repent and take up the good path, even as all of the prophets in Israel did.
Maimonides is trying to balance two essential Jewish values that our tradition holds dear. On the one hand, as we have seen, we are forbidden to humiliate even an egregious sinner in public. On the other hand, we also have a responsibility to condemn bad behavior. As we read in the Torah’s Holiness Code, הוֹכֵחַ תּוֹכִיחַ אֶת־עֲמִיתֶךָ, “You shall surely rebuke your kinsman lest you bear the burden of their sin” (Lev. 19:17). We cannot stand idly by as witnesses to public harm.
In some circles of today’s world, the culture leans too much in the direction of “rebuke.” Social media, newspaper editorials and, God knows, public campaigns thrive on defamation. A pervasive “call-out culture” affects high school and college students and ordinary professionals as much as it impacts people whose careers are spent in the public eye. Hawks on the lookout for missteps are quick to criticize and impatient of explanations. In my opinion, call-out culture goes against our tradition’s emphasis on preserving reputations at almost any cost.
Thus, instead of a call-out culture, I join others in supporting a call-in culture. Call-in culture involves outreach and discussion, listening to people who disagree with us—or even who have harmed us—and giving them the opportunity to hear from us as well. This is the invitation to repentance that Maimonides deems necessary. Only then, if a person has resisted our good-faith efforts to reach out and call in, we rightly resort to publicly decrying their wrongdoing.
Sometimes we also have a third option available. Instead of calling out and in addition to calling in, we might also promote a culture calling up.
If someone has done something wrong, and we’re in a position to do so, we can literally call them up. In a person-to-person exchange, we can share our view of what we observed and offer a gentle but confident rebuke. We can cultivate such a call-up culture in our professional circles, among our friends, and in our own families. The principles of outreach and respect work on all stages, large and small, and give good foundation to our public positions both for and against people we know.
In this week’s parashah, God says of the Israelites, “They have tested Me these ten times, and have not heeded My voice” (Num. 14:22). God is the ultimate exemplar of call-up culture, speaking to the Israelites through Moses, through Aaron, and even in direct speech over and over again. Finally, when they succumb to the vicious power of slander, God can suffer them no more and bars them from entering the Holy Land.
This lesson was hard for our spiritual ancestors but lives on as an ethical legacy for us today. We hold each other’s names in our hands, and our society hangs together only when we honor and respect reputations as much as we reasonably can.
May we avoid the temptations of slander and mistrust, keeping in mind the teaching found in the book of Kohelet: טוֹב שֵׁם מִשֶּׁמֶן טוֹב, “More precious than fine oil is [the blessing of] a good name” (7:1).
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