Unnecessary Evil: The Crimes of a Newspaper

Sexual abuse of a child is a cowardly, repulsive act, and every effort should be made to keep a sexually abusive person away from places where he can reach potential victims. As a society, we are duty-bound to make every effort to seek justice for the abused. However, neither of those things mean that what the Forward did last week was in any way appropriate.

I am not going to discuss the details of what the Forward said. I have heard claims about the veracity of the allegations made. I will not even mention any particulars of those because I have more respect and sympathy for the abused than that. But I will not shy away from asking why the Forward would publicly name several elderly or deceased individuals as possible perpetrators of a crime. It’s one thing to take potential allegations to the police or to the Great Synagogue to assure that these elderly men will no longer have jobs (if that job would put them where they have access to children). It is another matter entirely to needlessly tell the whole world about someone’s past misdeeds.

Lashon hara is a terrible sin. The Sages (Yerushalmi Peah 1:1) say that it is the equivalent of the three cardinal sins: idolatry, illicit sexual relations, and murder. The Rabbis also learn from the story of Yehuda and Tamar (see Rashi there) that one should allow himself to be thrown into a burning furnace before publicly embarrassing someone. There are many well-known stories from the Chafetz Chaim about the dangers of lashon hara. And while some of those may be apocryphal, the point of the dangers of such speech still stands.

In what cases is it permitted to speak what would otherwise be considered lashon hara? Without getting too detailed, the standard rule is that if there is a to’eles (literally, a ‘purpose’) then it is permitted to say things. A to’eles doesn’t just mean any arbitrary purpose. It means a concrete purpose. Halacha usually defines this as protecting someone from being harmed by the same person in the future. It is not up to us to punish the guilty by detailing their crimes to the whole world. Publicly humiliating them is not considered a to’eles. The court has prescribed punishments as to how to stop offenders and has some leeway if they feel a stronger punishment is necessary to send a message. Every random person on the street does not have those rights. The laws of lashon hara are about preventing anarchy, chaos, and mob rule.

The Forward’s expose was useless. It described crimes that were committed over 30 years ago. The major players involved in the alleged cover-up are no longer alive. Much of the story centers about what Rabbi Yitzchak “Izzy” Miller knew, and he passed away a decade ago. Finkelstein and Gordon are both in positions where they no longer have access to children. There is nothing to be gained from telling the world about their past sins, and there is certainly no right for a newspaper to act as the judge, jury, and executioner by detailing their crimes to the world. Every word of that article is lashon hara and accomplishes some of the gravest sins that a Jew can commit.

None of that comes close to the supreme injustice that the article perpetrated on Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm. Rabbi Lamm was the longtime president of Yeshiva University (which includes the high school in which the events took place) and led the institution through trying financial times. He has been a controversial figure but is respected for most of what he has written, done, and said in his illustrious career. He now serves as Chancellor of the university. His basic biography can be quickly found with a simple search on the internet.

The most important part of his bio – the part that needs to be said in his defense (though YU never will; which is why I feel that I must) and the part that makes the Forward’s article so despicable – is one that is a not-so-well-kept secret. Rabbi Lamm is 85 years old and has, at the very least, a fairly advanced case of dementia. This does not detract from who he is or what he has done in the slightest. The gemara tells us that just as the broken tablets were kept in the aron kodesh, so too must we respect a talmid chacham whose mental faculties have diminished with age. His position as chancellor is mainly that of a figurehead. It would not have been right or fair to dismiss someone who served faithfully as President for 27 years. His current position is a sign of respect, but not one that actually does anything.

His dementia is what makes the Forward’s article – mainly about his knowledge of what happened over 30 years ago – so appalling. His severely decreased cognitive capacity is apparent to anyone who has an extended conversation with him. How someone got access with him to interview him about this is beyond me. It further baffles me that someone could conduct this interview without realizing that Rabbi Lamm is not really in a position to coherently discuss such things. It takes a human being without a shred of morality to indict someone in an alleged cover-up when it is clear to the interviewer that neither he nor the interviewee know if they can trust these memories.

Lashon hara can be committed in the smallest of ways. A condescending glance or a roll of the eyes is enough for a person to violate this Torah law. We often wonder how it can be that something so small can be portrayed as such a serious sin, and then articles like this are published in the Forward, and it is clear to all why lashon hara is considered one of the greatest evils that a person can do.