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.