Every now and again the media report a court case involving the claim of
libel - that one person spoke falsely about another. Society understands
that it is unacceptable to say negative things about people if they are
not true. It seems, however, that society accepts the right to speak
negatively about others as long as we speak the truth. The Torah takes a
different approach: Negative speech about others (known as lashon hara in
hebrew) is forbidden by the Torah even if one is telling the truth. Why
is this the case - what is wrong with speaking honestly about others just
because it involves criticism?
There are two main reasons why lashon hara is forbidden? Firstly it often
causes damage of some kind . And even if there is no tangible damage
done, we tend to change our opinion of people based on what we hear about
them. Consequently if we hear, for example, that John is an arrogant
person, we are now more likely to notice arrogance in his character.
But what about a situation where lashon hara was spoken and absolutely no
damage was done? Why should this form of lashon hara be forbidden? This
brings us to the second problem with lashon hara even when it is true;
Rabbeinu Yonah, one of the great medieval Rabbis, tells a brief story
about this issue: An elderly sage was walking along a path with his
student and they passed the rotting corpse of a dog. The student
exclaimed, “this corpse is so disgusting!” His Rabbi answered, “but what
lovely white teeth it has!” The Rabbi was teaching his student that we
should always strive to focus on the good, even with regard to the corpse
of a dog.
When a person speaks badly about someone else he is focusing on the
negative and ignoring the positive in that that person. Rabbeinu Yonah
explains that seeing the bad in others in and of itself is an undesirable
character trait - speaking badly about others reflects an inner tendency
to see the negative. The Torah forbids lashon hara because it wants us to
be people who see the good in others.