A recent post has led a friend to suggest that I may have run afoul of the Jewish law against "lashon hara" or evil speech.
I take this concern seriously. But in the end, I'm guided by principles more fully laid out at the website of JSafe: The Jewish Institute Supporting an Abuse Free Environment.
Most especially compelling, for me, is the essay by Rabbi Mark Dratch entitled:
"Let Them Talk: The Mitzvah to Speak Lashon Hara"
Here is the excerpt I find most compelling. It appears near the end of the essay. I've redacted the footnotes for simplicity's sake. If you're intrigued, please go read the essay yourself.
It's not easy reading, but it makes a lot of sense, at least to me.
Lashon Hara about the Dead
Is it permissible for victims of a perpetrator who has since died to speak lashon hara about him?
The Talmud indicates that there is no prohibition of speaking lashon hara about the dead, either because the dead do not know what is being said about them or because they do not care what is being said about them. However, because their legacies are at stake, as well as the reputations and well-being of their surviving families, and because they cannot defend themselves, Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim 606:3 cites a takanat kadmonim (ancient enactment) that prohibits “speaking ill of the dead.”
Hafetz Hayyim rules: Rabbi Yizhak said: If one makes remarks about the dead, it is like making remarks about a stone. Some say [the reason is that] they do not know, others that they know but do not care. Can that be so? Has not R. Papa said: A certain man made derogatory remarks about Mar Samuel and a log fell from the roof and broke his skull? A Rabbinical student is different, because the Holy One, blessed be He, avenges his insult.
And know also that even to disparage and curse the dead is also forbidden. The decisors of Jewish law have written that there is an ancient enactment and herem (ban) against speaking ill of and defaming the dead. This applies even if the subject is an am ha-aretz (boor), and even more so if he is a Torah scholar. Certainly, one who disparages [a scholar] commits a criminal act and should be excommunicated for this, as is ruled in Yoreh De’ah 243:7. The prohibition of disparaging a Torah scholar applies even if he is disparaging him personally, and certainly if he is disparaging his teachings.
However, despite this enactment, there are times when one is permitted to speak ill of the dead. It is important to note that this prohibition is not derived from the Torah verse banning lashon hara; it stems from a rabbinic decree and is, thus, no more stringent than the laws of lashon hara themselves. Since lashon hara which is otherwise biblically prohibited is allowed if there is a to’elet [beneficial purpose], so too lashon hara about the deceased is permitted if there is a to’elet. While the nature of the to’elet may change—after all, the deceased is no longer a threat to anyone else’s safety—there may be any number of beneficial purposes in sharing this information including: preventing others from learning inappropriate behavior, condemning such behavior, clearing one’s own reputation, seeking advice, support, and help, one’s own psychological benefit, and validating the abusive experience of others who may have felt that they, and no one else, was this man’s victim. [Emphasis added.]
Furthermore, the restriction on speaking ill of the dead may be based on the assumption that death was a kapparah, i.e., it was an atonement for sins. This atonement, however, is predicated on his having repented before his death, and that repentance requires both restitution for the harm caused and reconciliation with the victim. If the perpetrator had not reconciled with his victim, no atonement was achieved. And of such an unrepentant sinner the verse teaches, “The memory of the just is blessed; but the name of the wicked shall rot” (Proverbs 10:7). In addition, Jewish law does not recognize the concept of statute of limitations in these matters.
When All is Said…
Lashon hara is a tool of abuse, both when derogatory speech defames innocent people, destroying their reputations, and when warnings to refrain from derogatory speech are used to silence victims of abuse who cry out for help. As careful as we must be not to speak, listen to, or repeat, disparaging information when it is forbidden, we must not allow the threat of speaking lashon hara to silence the cry of innocent victims. We must carefully heed the words of Pithei Teshuvah cited above:
There is a sin even greater than [speaking lashon hara], and one which is more widespread, i.e., the sin of refraining from informing another about a situation in which one can save him from being victimized—all out of concern for lashon hara… One who behaves in this manner, his sin is too great to bear and he violates, "You shall not stand by the blood of your brother."
Victims of abuse need to speak out, for all kinds of personal reasons, in order to help themselves. Their supporters need to speak out in order to help them. And the community needs to speak out in order to hold the perpetrators responsible and in order to protect other innocents from potential harm. [Emphasis added.]All must be diligent in meeting the conditions required for such speech, including knowledge of or verification of the facts, proper motivation, the curbing of personal animosities, no exaggeration, and the like. Allowances must be made for persistent rumors and circumstantial evidence when their credibility meet halakhic standards. And each of us needs to recommit ourselves to protecting the physical and spiritual welfare of women, children, and men; safeguarding the integrity of the social fabric of the Jewish community; and securing the honor of Torah and God’s very Name.
According to rabbinic tradition, it is the capacity of speech that distinguishes humans from the animals and from all other parts of Creation. The Torah demands of us to use that divine gift of speech wisely and carefully in order to protect the human-ness of victims of abuse, as well as the humane-ness of every member of our society.