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The Jewish Ethicist: Clerical Criticism

The Jewish Ethicist: Clerical Criticism

Are religious leaders subject to criticism?


Q. You recently wrote that while blogs should protect the privacy of private individuals, they don't need to block reasonable discussions of the qualifications of public figures. Does this include religious leaders? What are the boundaries?

A. My recent column on blogging ethics generated a lot of interesting reader comment and, not surprisingly, a fair amount of discussion on blogs. The most common concern by far is the one in this week's question: Is a rabbi or other religious leader a "public figure"? What are the appropriate ethical boundaries in criticizing these figures?

In order to answer this question, we have to return to our famous "ABC's" of negative speech. These basic principles, enunciated by Rav Yisrael Meir Hacohen of Radin in his famous work Chafetz Chaim, hold the key to explaining my previous statement as well as some significant differences in the case of rabbis and other spiritual leaders.

The Chafetz Chaim explains that negative speech is only permissible with five conditions:

  1. Accuracy -- we must be sure to present the facts in an objective fashion, not in a tendentious screed;
  2. Benefit -- the revelation must be necessary to obtain some benefit, and there must be no alternative way of obtaining the benefit without damaging comments.
  3. Certainty -- we need to check our facts and not repeat innuendo
  4. Desire -- the motivation for our revelation must be to obtain the benefit; if the objective is slander the revelation is improper even if a benefit will result.
  5. Equity -- the subject of the revelation, as well any other individuals, should not suffer any undeserved damage.

If we apply these criteria to the average private person, we see that we have no license to broadcast his or her foibles. What possible benefit could there be? And even if there is a benefit, any damage or embarrassment caused would be completely undeserved -- what did this poor person do to warrant having his shortcomings broadcast over cyberspace?

But if we apply the exact same criteria to a politician, we find that reasonable criticism will generally meet them. Having a bad political leader can result in great damage to the community, and having timely knowledge of the abilities and character of candidates is of benefit because these people typically stand for election at fixed intervals and the information is of practical use to the community. No one has a right to a political office, so if someone gets voted out because of an item revealed in a blog, this is not "undeserved."

The most problematic criteria is intention; for this reason I believe that anyone with a private interest in the outcome of the election should reveal it when giving an opinion on a candidate.

What about a spiritual leader such as a rabbi? We don't need any new criteria, but we will find that our old criteria play out a little differently.

Accuracy & Certainty: the same evidence which would be pretty convincing regarding an average person might be unpersuasive regarding a person known for outstanding moral stature. The Torah commands us "Judge your fellow righteously" (Leviticus 19:15), meaning that we should strive to give others the benefit of the doubt. But if the person in question has a reputation for upstanding conduct, then giving him or her the benefit of the doubt is not merely a good deed, it is simply good judgment.

Benefit: Political leaders are chosen in openly contested elections at stated periods. If their foibles are exposed, the public has a good chance to make use of this information in deciding whether to elect or re-elect them. Furthermore, other methods of obtaining benefit are seldom practical; a person can't exactly phone up the governor and schmooze with him or her over the way to improve their failings.

Compare this to the average spiritual leader. Even if we are convinced that they have made mistakes, revelation doesn't always make the most sense. Many of these people are surprisingly accessible, and so often it is much more practical and ethical to merely confront them with any concerns. And it is worth asking if letting followers know about shortcomings will ultimately be of benefit.

Equity: Due to their great moral authority of these leaders, undermining their status can do immense damage to the community -- perhaps more than the damage resulting from having authority in the hands of an imperfect individual. This damage needs to be considered before deciding that revelation is justified.

This doesn't mean that these criteria can never be fulfilled. Sometimes it will be appropriate or even necessary to conduct a public discussion of the character and qualifications of religious leaders. But the considerations will be much stricter not because of any arbitrary "privilege of clergy" but simply because of the consistent application of the underlying principles of right speech.

One more point needs to be emphasized. Respectful disagreement does not fall into the category of negative speech at all, and so there is no need to apply the Chafetz Chaim's criteria. If a rabbi gives a sermon and someone comments that he doesn't know what he is talking about or that he is insensitive to some vital interest, that is negative speech and careful application of the above criteria would make us extremely reluctant to express ourselves in this way.

But if I say that my opinion is different, that's not slanderous in any way. The fact that I see things differently doesn't detract from his status in any way. (If a rabbi makes a ruling within the scope of his authority, those subject to this authority are still allowed to disagree but not to disobey. We are all familiar with the parallel distinction regarding decisions of judges in the secular law.)

The basic rule for publicizing damaging statements is the same for all individuals: the facts should be checked and expressed in balanced way; the revelation should be the only way of obtaining some important benefit; and the revelation should result in undeserved damage.

But when we apply these criteria to spiritual leaders, we will find that the result is a very strict policy: the facts don't stack up the same way with regard to a person of great repute; the benefits of revelation are often questionable and the damage often great. Rabbis and other spiritual leaders should not be immune from criticism or public discussion, but their reputations and vital community role imply that these criticisms need to be expressed with unusual judgment and care.

The Jewish Ethicist presents some general principles of Jewish law. For specific questions and direct application, please consult a qualified Rabbi.

September 24, 2005

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Visitor Comments: 3

(3) R.L., October 9, 2005 12:00 AM

reputations and public scrutiny

Long ago I had lost faith in a rabbi. Interestingly, he had and still has a large following, many Baal Teshuvas, one of them, my ex husband. I heard much Lashon Harah out of his mouth(first hand), about some of his very own "followers" and students. He constantly interfered in my marriage, during our Shana Rishona. He would stay over at least one night a week, ask my husband to escort him to various social/religious functions, leaving me at home alone with a newborn quite often. He even invited (and allowed) my husband to join him in Israel for week for his study retreat. Most disturbing to me was the fact that when the marriage was falling apart, I approached him and begged him for help. He was unwilling to help me and made himself totally unavailable to me. Basically, I felt that he did not act in accordance with what I believe, is the TRUE essence of our religion, Compassion, kindness, sensitivity, being mindfull of another person, and being tolerant of others, no matter where they're at in their own observance. I totally believe that this Rabbi had his own "agenda." Do I sound judgemental? Of course, I am! BUT, is it for me to judge him? NO! It is for Hashem. Would I like to tell the world how I feel about this man and describe the hypocracy I witnessed? You bet! But I don't feel it's appropriate. Hashem has his reasons for putting people in our lives, whether positive or negative. We may not understand at the time. I certainly did not, and still don't understand why Hashem "tossed" this man into my life. But I am sure there was a reason...Still, I shudder to think of the amount of "followers" that he has, who admire him, and strive to emulate him! Especially those Baal Teshuvas that come with so much love for Yiddishkeit, so open and so hungry for direction...

(2) Anonymous, October 2, 2005 12:00 AM

While I agree with all that you say about applying principles of right speech to people of great authority and/or reputation, I
think that you may have made a logical error in your assumption
that all rabbis or other spiritual leaders are people of either
great authority and/or reputation.

> We all know of junior rabbis or older pulpit rabbis who are by
no means gedolim, who treat their jobs (and whose congregants
treat their jobs) as jobs and not spiritual callings. Are these
people entitled to the strict protection of the greater leaders?
And on the other side, aren't there non-rabbinical moral
leaders of the congregation, whose voices are listened to with
great care for their wisdom and judgment, that are entitled to
strict protection against slander, for the very reasons you provide?
My argument is that you have provided excellent reasons why
people of great moral and spiritual stature should only very
rarely have "public persons" exceptions to lashon hora applied
to them. But is being a rabbi an automatic entitlement to such
treatment? If so, I don't think you made that argument in your essay.
With great respect.

(1) Art Haykin, September 25, 2005 12:00 AM


The Rabbi uses the word "reputation" in his article as if the term had a single definition written in stone. It does not. Your true character is who and what you are, while your "reputation" is what certain people SAY who and what you are.
An unelected official or leader should be subject to the same scrutiny as any other, if not more so: the opportunities for incompetence and abuse of authority are greater. No human on earth is above reproach.

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