Thursday, January 9, 2014

The Stark Tragedy, Lashon Hara and Chilul Hashem

A friend, neighbor and accountant extraordinaire Devorah Saban commented on my last post about Menachem Stark:
I'd have to agree with the other commentators. Possibly a nice point, but at the expense of either motzi shem ra or lashon hara, depending on if it is true.  Just because the Post prints it, doesn't mean it's factually true, nor permissible to replicate.

I don't agree for two reasons. First of all, from a halachic point of view, there's no prohibition of lashon hara on information that's public knowledge. The Gemara in Baba Batra states,
כל מילתא דמתאמרא באפי תלתא - לית בה משום לישנא בישא [כל דבר הנאמר בפני שלושה - אין בו משום לשון הרע].
Any matter that is said in front of three - is not subject to the statutes of Lashon Hara. 
Rambam (Hilchot De'ot 7:5) codifies this Gemara as normative halachah writing,
ואם נאמרו דברים אלו בפני שלושה, כבר נשמע הדבר ונודע, ואם סיפר הדבר אחד מן השלושה פעם אחרת, אין בו משום לשון הרע--והוא שלא יתכוון להעביר הקול, ולגלותו יותר.
If these matters were spoken in the presence of three [individuals] and the matter is already heard and known, and one of the three retold the story, there is no [prohibition] of lashon hara, for he did not specifically intend to pass on the story and reveal it more.
Readers of my blog undoubtedly didn't hear about these allegations from me. You might not like my wording, but my blog isn't making any news.

More importantly, sadly, we too often sweep troubling information "under the rug" with the catch-all that it's probably not true, and in any case, it's lashon hara. But, by doing so, we become silent accomplices in all matter of troubling behavior, allowing either the perpetrators themselves or others to continue to act in a similar manner. We've seen this time and time again, whether in dealing with allegations of sexual misconduct, abuse, withholding of a Get, etc. I don't believe in "outing" people due simply to unsubstantiated allegations. But this is clearly not the case.
I never wrote that Menachem Stark broke the law. I have no idea if he did. I called him a despicable slumlord. A slumlord is defined as "a landlord of slum property, esp. one who profiteers." It's also what we call a person who doesn't pay contractors, forces the poor to pay four months' worth of deposits which you fail to repay, etc, etc. There doesn't seem to be a debate about whether any of it is true. Has anyone in his community denied any of the allegations? To my mind, taking advantage of the poor is despicable. I guess others might disagree.

This entire episode is one massive, tragic chillul hashem. Truly terrible. Whether we like it or not, and whether it's true or not, New Yorkers associate Chassidim with Torah and Judaism, and whether you call it anti-semitism, bias, whatever - this individual's past, which didn't seem that difficult for reporters to uncover, created a direct association between people who claim to represent Torah and behavior. (It's also true for every kippah-wearing Jew as well!) Bernie Madoff's actions were terrible, and perhaps didn't help us on the anti-semitism front, but were they a chillul hashem? I'm not sure, because he never claimed - by his dress, action or appearance, to represent a Torah lifestyle or ideal.
When I think about this episode, the text keeps popping into my mind is the very disturbing language of the Gemara in Yoma, which describes and defines Chillul Hashem.
היכי דמי חילול השם, אמר רב כגון אנא אי שקילנא בישרא מטבחא ולא יהיבנא דמי לאלתר... רבי יוחנן אמר כגון אנא דמסגינא ארבע אמות בלא תורה ובלא תפילין, יצחק דבי רבי ינאי אמר כל שחבריו מתביישין מחמת שמועתו. אמר רב נחמן בר יצחק כגון הא דאמרי אינשי שרא ליה מריה לפלניא... אבל מי שקורא ושונה ומשמש תלמידי חכמים ואין משאו ומתנו באמונה, ואין דבורו בנחת עם הבריות, מה הבריות אומרות עליו, אוי לו לפלוני שלמד תורה, אוי לו לאביו שלימדו תורה, אוי לו לרבו שלימדו תורה, פלוני שלמד תורה ראו כמה מקולקלים מעשיו וכמה מכוערין דרכיו, ועליו הכתוב אומר באמור להם עם ה' אלה ומארצו יצאו. (יומא פו א)

What  constitutes  profanation  of  the Name? — Rab said: If, e.g., I take meat for the butcher and  do  not  pay  him  at  once...R.  Johanan said: In my case [it is a profanation if] I walk four cubits without [uttering words of] Torah or [wearing] Tefillin. Isaac, of the School of R.  Jannai.  said:  If  one's  colleagues  are ashamed of his reputation, that constitutes a profanation of the Name. R. Nahman b. Isaaccommented: E.g. if people say, May the Lord forgive So-and-so.
...But  if  someone  studies  Scripture  and Mishnah, attends on the disciples of the wise, but is dishonest in business, and discourteous in  his  relations  with  people,  what  do  people
say  about  him?  ‘Woe  unto  him  who  studied the  Torah,  woe  unto  his  father  who  taught him Torah; woe unto his teacher who taught him  Torah!’  This  man  studied  the  Torah: Look,  how  corrupt  are  his  deeds,  how  ugly his ways; of him Scripture says: In that men said  of  them,:  These  are  the  people  of  the
Lord, and are gone forth out of His land.

It's impossible to ignore how strongly Chazal refer to Chillul Hashem in the context of one's business dealings. If this isn't chillul Hashem, what in the world is? And if we refuse to talk about it, shushing ourselves due to misplaced concerns about lashon hara, how in the world can we possibly imaging that it won't keep taking place?