This past year, my Jerusalem neighborhood was plagued by a sexual abuse tragedy, the likes of which have likely never been known in Israel. Over one hundred children were molested by a ring of pedophiles, and while two of the criminals have been placed behind bars, the professionals investigating the case all say that there are some still at large. Concerned parents have begun circulating names and pictures of suspects – a natural response for a mother or a father seeking to protect their child from such a fate.
What are citizens to do when the authorities openly admit that law-enforcement tools are not sufficient to keep us safe? Clearly, a healthy society cannot condone anyone taking the law into their own hands, and yet when it comes to the emotions a parent experiences when their child is threatened, this is no simple rule.
The lines become even more challenging when it comes to the laws of slander and disparagement. How should we protect ourselves when we are prohibited - by law - from naming suspects around whom parents need to be cautious? On the opposite end, what about the right of a suspect being presumed innocent until proven guilty? We find ourselves on a delicate precipice - a witch-hunt mentality a mere hairsbreadth away.
The halachic laws of Lashon Hara have something to teach in this situation. The Torah teaches us in Vayikra that, "You shall not go as a talebearer among thy people; neither shalt thou stand idly by the blood of thy neighbor" (Leviticus 19:16). This injunction is taken extremely seriously in Jewish law, which is very much aware that lives can be destroyed by the spreading of slander. But note that the verse also calls upon us to not stand idly by the blood of our neighbor; are there not times that lives are destroyed by our being silent?
The master of these laws, the Chofetz Chaim (The Laws of Lashon Hara 6:10) explains that in a case where there is a suspicion that someone will cause damage to someone else we are permitted to give warning. While under normal circumstances we are not allowed to receive slanderous words, this case is called “Lemechash Bai” (You Must Be Cautious).
Here, the halacha gives us the subtle and oh so important warning that despite the fact that we have to be careful around this person, we are not allowed to believe the slander about them.
This is of course a difficult, if not impossible, expectation to have of us. Who can honestly say that they would not look at an accused individual differently as they distanced children from them? None the less, I believe that here the halacha offers us the only true path to protect both the suspect and potential new victims. This demand that we maintain our integrity and commitment to truth when values collide speaks to me of a dignity of spirit, calling upon us to master our inner attitude and perspective. This engagement of our inner world, the struggle to master our own thoughts and emotions, is a fitting response to those monsters that would destroy us with their unleashed deviant attitudes and behavior.
I hope and pray that the authorities will bring this horrible episode to a close in the near future. It is clear to me that Israel needs new legislation protecting us from those sexual predators who are known to be at large. When it comes to public figures, the Israeli legal system allows for leeway in slander laws, for it is in the public interest that there be public scrutiny. Should this not be the same when it comes to the safety of our children? Society should take a lesson from halacha in these cases: educating its citizens on the dangers of Lashon Hara, and instilling a value system that would allow authorities - under certain circumstances - to advertise warnings, and have faith in the public’s ability to negotiate the delicate balance between truth and safety.
Rabbi Aaron Leibowitz is Dean of HaOhel Institutions in Jerusalem, now launching a new venture, Threshold, fostering Jewish educational entrepreneurship.