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Rabbi Benjamin Blech


Does the fact that something is true always justify its being made public?


WikiLeaks has become a political game changer for the entire world.

Secrets, we now realize, are no longer possible even for those with diplomatic pouches, encrypted security measures and the most powerful safeguards for supposedly securing total privacy.

Thanks to WikiLeaks the whole world now knows the content of many of the most intimate conversations between heads of state as well as reports of ambassadors to their governments. Some of the material was so explosive that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spent much of the past week preparing foreign leaders for the fallout — what the Guardian described as a “meltdown” of the U.S. diplomatic corps.

In addition to giving support to many of Israel's positions, especially regarding the threat of Iran, several revelations are deeply embarrassing. They provide off-the-cuff assessments by American diplomats of world leaders, critiques that were expected to be released only decades from now. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is compared to Hitler, French President Nicolas Sarkozy is called an “emperor with no clothes," Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai is "driven by paranoia," according to the cables, while German Chancellor Angela Merkel earns high marks as a "Teflon" politician.

The explosive nature of what has now become public knowledge was perhaps best summed up by Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini who referred to the public release of the WikiLeaks information as the "Sept. 11 of world diplomacy."

Related Article: Stopping Lashon Hara

Does the truth really supersede every other value?

WikiLeaks has introduced a new concept into the political arena: Truth trumps all else. If it is true that a head of state spoke ill of another government's leader it is not only justifiable but even mandatory to reveal the insult. After all, it is true, and what can be more exemplary than to publicize truth? If there is information that guides foreign policy which our enemies are unaware of but strategically important to us, the only question that needs to be answered before making it public is whether it is indeed fact; WikiLeaks is proud to present itself as fearless spokesman for truth, no matter the fallout or negative consequences.

I will leave it to the political analysts to discuss the merits of this position as it relates to the relationships between nations and the real-politique necessary to assure peace between peoples with differing ideologies and aspirations. What I'm more interested in is whether the guiding rule of WikiLeaks ought to be an ethical principle for our private lives.

Does the truth really supersede every other value? Does the fact that something is true always justify its being made public?

Before we make up our minds about the morality of WikiLeaks laying bare every governmental indiscretion or secret to the world's press, it might be relevant for us to put this into the perspective of our own moral choices on a daily basis.

Judaism is quite clear about the severity of lashon hara – speaking ill of others. Very often those who are guilty of this sin attempt to justify their behavior with the words “But it's true.” According to Jewish law, this “defense” is totally irrelevant. Lashon hara, which literally means 'evil talk,' has no right for expression because of its motivation; its truthfulness does not override its hurtfulness. If what is being said is a slanderous lie in addition to being hurtful, it would be an even greater sin.

Before we speak of another person we must always ask ourselves two questions – is it kind and is it true?

Rabbi Israel Salanter, founder of the Mussar movement that stressed the importance of developing personal integrity, put it beautifully: Before we speak of another person we must always ask ourselves two questions – is it kind and is it true? And if the answer to the first is no, then the second no longer matters; our ethical imperative demands silence.

It often comes as a surprise to many people to learn that Jewish law sometimes not only permits but actually encourages the suppression of truth.

What if the family and the doctor are certain that a critically ill patient wouldn't be able to cope with a dire prognosis? Compassion, codified by Jewish law, dictates that we may hide the truth from the clinically condemned sufferer, even if we have to lie when he asks whether we are optimistic about his fate.

There are many moments in life when unvarnished truth comes with a price too costly to bear. The Talmud points out that God himself did not hesitate to tell a lie in the cause of a kinder and greater good. When the angels came to Sarah to inform her that she would be blessed with a child, her response mocked the prophecy on the grounds that her husband Abraham was too old to be a father. But when God repeated her words to Abraham he changed them; in God's version Sarah supposedly put the onus on herself – “I am too old to bear a child.” That wasn't true. But it was kind. And it is from this very story that the sages posit the principle that a lie in the interest of peace – in this case peace between husband and wife – is far preferable to a hurtful truth.

The WikiLeaks philosophy has no place in our personal lives. Judaism long ago warned us that the malicious does not become any more acceptable simply by virtue of its veracity, nor does truth enjoy an unquestioned right to be disseminated in spite of any negative consequences.

After all, as William Blake so profoundly pointed out,

“A truth that's told with bad intent
beats all the lies you can invent.”

December 4, 2010

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Visitor Comments: 33

(33) Anonymous, January 3, 2011 4:32 AM

If you saw a crime would you report it?

I recommend that everyone go and see exactly why the Editor in Chief of Wikileaks is in prison before passing judgment. While you are at it. Check out why it happened.

(32) Frances, January 3, 2011 2:50 AM

Is exposing Corruption and Murder Lashon Hara?

The real reason that WikiLeaks has become a household name is not because they revealed personal private details about people's lives, but because they exposed Cover-Ups committed by various Governments under the so called shield of 'secrecy'. The Leak which has Bradley Manning sitting in a US prison right now, was some State Secret but a Cover Up by the Military of War Crimes committed in Iraq, against unarmed civilians by US Forces, killing innocent children and unarmed people including 2 Reuters cameramen. I have seen the video and it is just heartbreaking. Wikileaks is not gossip, it telling the truth. If there had been some German in Germany during the Holocaust who didn't turn a blind eye, thousands of lives could have been saved. That is what this is really all about.

(31) David Braunstein, December 25, 2010 1:24 AM

Lashon Hora has its limits

Imagine if WikiLeaks were around in World War II telling the world about Hitler's propaganda campaign about the Jews and his terrible plans? I wonder if the catastrophe could have been avoided altogether. My grandfather said to me that the free press is what keeps America free. Isn't WikiLeaks just a vehicle to distribute news? To the issue of Lashon Hora, what is its role as it relates to freedom of the press and speech? Wasn't Soviet Russia famous for its newspapers promolgating propaganda that showed that everything was good and fine when really it wasn't. Yes, it was nice to print the crops were good and illness was going down. There was no news about many people being imprisoned and sent to Siberia. Maybe if there was a free press, the public would pressure its leaders to stop these hideous practices. Speaking kind untruths often undermines credibility when the truth is important. There is a short-term and long-term consequences when deciding to lie to to tell the truth. Short-term kindness could lead to long-term unkindness. It is though to know what is Lashon Hora and what is long run kindness. That's why we need Torah study and wise counsel to help us with difficult situations.

(30) micah david, December 22, 2010 9:29 PM

How much blood does this guy have on his hands?

One thing I haven't heard much about, and I didn't get to read all the comments, was something that my husband pointed out to me. When he was an intelligence analyst with the US Army, certain details were never released nor meant to be released because it would cause a spy their life, since certain information is only known by certain people. If one reads, "The News We Kept to Ourselves" by EASON JORDAN, it is obvious to see that revealing some information will cause others their lives. Last night, as I sat doing some mending, my oldest daughter was watching a show which laughed about the whole scandle. All I could think of were the men/women that were probably lined up and shot after hours and hours of torture. When I tried to relate this to my daughter, she said she is sure we would have heard of these murders had they occured. I realized the futility of continuing but I can't imagine this guy or the people who supplied the information have any idea of the furry they have unleashed. I realize there are traitors against our nation and against Israel, but for the poor people who risk their lives so we can have information, this was such a betrayal of almost infinte proportions. I am not exactly sure where I head this lesson, but I thinkit was a lesson from the Talmud by Rabbi Blech that told of a guy who was truly repentant for his loshon hara against a rabbi and asked a rabbi for forgiveness. The rabbi told the guy fine, but go home and cut up two feather pillows and scatter the feathers and then to return. When the guy returned the rabbi told the guy to now go and gather up all the feathers because that was how easy it would be to undo his actions. I believe there is forgiveness for repentance but consequences still apply to actions. Just my opinion.

(29) Elliot Katz, December 22, 2010 12:47 AM

Rabbi Blech didn't go far enough

I don't understand the mentality of people who think that the public has a right to know what a diplomat said privately about a head of state. People have to be able to exchange ideas candidly without fear of public exposure. Would you want every opinion you ever expressed printed on the front page of the New York Times? The belief that government can hold no secrets from its citizens is naive beyond belief. Assange has done incalculable harm to America's ability to pursue diplomacy. Would you like an example? Thanks to WikiLeaks, we now know that Saudi Arabia was urging the US to bomb Iran. What if Israel finally decides that her back is to the wall and she has no choice but to try to take out Iran's nuclear capability? Until now, the other Arab countries could maintain a public stance of "deploring" Israel's aggression while privately heaving a sigh of relief. The conservative regime in Saudi Arabia could act as a buffer to the "Arab Street", privately muting the desire for retribution. Now, thanks to Assange, the Saudis no longer have any plausible deniability. If they don't actively respond to an Israeli attack, they will stand accused of collaboration. I wish all these advocates of "truth" would grow up. Personally, I would love to see Assange extradited and executed for espionage.

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