Parashat Metzora: When the truth hurts

Israeli society owes a vote of thanks to its media, one of whose tasks must be to safeguard morality in the most sacrosanct corridors of power.

Birds 521 (photo credit: Israel Weiss ( http://artfram)
Birds 521
(photo credit: Israel Weiss ( http://artfram)
The Jewish state has undergone a socio-ethical tsunami with the indictment, trial, conviction and subsequent seven-year prison term for its No. 1 citizen, former president Moshe Katsav, for having committed rape and indecent acts on women who worked in his office. His trial occasioned much media comment both in Israel and abroad.
Considering that we are the nation that gave the world the Ten Commandments of morality more than 4,000 years ago, we feel like hiding our heads in shame at this apparent desecration of God’s name.
The only little bit of comfort we can garner is that the entire world must now acknowledge that no individual in Israel stands above the law, no matter how lofty his position or how influential his contacts.
But there were minority voices in Israel, including one of the three presiding judges – who questioned, not the verdict, but the severity of the sentence, claiming that the negative media publicity had created a lynch atmosphere which unfairly influenced the judges.
How valid is such a charge? This brings us to the biblical portion of Metzora, with which we must begin any assessment of the legitimacy (or lack thereof) of the extensive press coverage.
Tzara’at is usually identified as leprosy, but many if not most biblical commentators reject this identification: first of all, a physical illness must be attended to by a medical doctor rather than by a kohen/priest; secondly, the walls of a house cannot be affected by a physiological disease; and thirdly, a physical plague spreads most rapidly in a crowded situation, yet no “lepers” were to be quarantined even temporarily in Jerusalem during the pilgrim festivals – precisely the time when the streets were overflowing with visitors and a plague can easily spread.
Hence, our sages (most notably Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch) maintain that tzara’at was a spiritual malady brought about by speaking or listening to slander, and Rabbi Yisrael Salanter would often explain that the biblical portion of Metzora follows the portion of Shmini – which concludes with the forbidden animals, birds and fish – in order to teach us that what comes out of our mouths can result in far greater damage than what goes in.
Maimonides lists three forms of forbidden talk: Firstly a rochel – someone who conveys words about someone else, going from one to another saying “so have I heard about so and so.” Even if the words are true and not even negative, the talebearer is still considered as one who destroys the world. And there is a much greater transgression than this, which is evil speech (lashon hara). This occurs when one speaks in a derogatory fashion about someone else, even if what one says is true. And thirdly, one who spreads evil falsehoods about someone else is a motzi shem ra.
Such evil speech will result in the death of three individuals: the one who says it, the one who listens to it, and the one about whom it is spoken. And the one who listens to it is worse than the one who propagates it (Laws of Proper Ideas 7, 1-3).
From this perspective, how can we justify the actions of the press, exacerbating the public condemnation even before the trial, and without even being certain of the facts? Perhaps such slanderous writing did indeed affect the sentencing, and ought to be prohibited.
I would maintain that a free press remains one of the glories of Israeli society, and must not be tampered with. Even Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan (known as the Hafetz Haim), who wrote a vital work titled Guard Your Tongue on the evils of slander, maintains that for the common good – for example, when one is asked about the suitability of a person for a shidduch (matrimonial match) – one must sometimes tell the entire truth, even if the report is a negative one.
Jewish tradition encourages everyone – from childhood on – to study such texts, because such study will create a climate of “social non-acceptability.” A dangerous male chauvinism was beginning to seep into our political and military elite. When such an evil spirit of sexual harassment rears its ugly head, it is crucially important that our press step in and express revulsion.
Obviously it must do so responsibly – and hopefully the laws of libel will protect the innocent from unfair attack. It must be remembered, however, that public office engenders even more added responsibility than added privilege. Israeli society owes a vote of thanks to its media, one of whose tasks must be to safeguard morality in the most sacrosanct corridors of power.
The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.