The Art of Whistleblowing

Each week Rabbi Yoel Domb writes about issues of business ethics related to the Torah portion of the week.

What should an employee do when he knows that practices within his business are immoral and could have damaging consequences for the public? Should he share his concerns with top staff, or should he keep quiet and mind his own business? Assuming he has shared his concerns with his superiors and they have chosen to ignore them in order to protect company interests, should he then “blow the whistle” and publicly expose his company’s improprieties?

The whistleblower’s dilemma is twofold: he is risking his job and career prospects through his actions, and he is also engaging in what most people would deem slanderous and damaging activities. But besides these issues there is a personal uncertainty for the whistleblower, since he himself may question the purity of his motives. He may want to be a hero (some whistleblowers have become public celebrities), or possibly he is failing in his own capacity and wants to divert attention from his own failings. How then can a person be assured that his actions stem from moral integrity? On the other hand, if he continues to play a function in his company he is aiding and condoning immoral behavior by his silence. This internal conflict compounds the moral angst of the whistleblower.

It is possible to draw a parallel between the whistleblower’s dilemma and that faced by Pinchas when he confronted Zimri some three millennia ago. At the time a plague was raging among the Israelites after they served idols and sinned with the Moabite women. Moshe then told the judges of Israel to kill those who had sinned in this fashion. One of the leaders of Israel, Zimri, chief of the tribe of Shimon, was at that moment cohabiting with a gentile princess. This was an act of direct defiance, since Zimri’s tribe had begged him to intervene and defend those who had cohabited with the Moabites. Zimri had accosted Moshe with the Moabite princess and said:

” Is this woman permitted or forbidden (to cohabit with)? If she is forbidden, who allowed you to marry the daughter of Yitro? Zimri was intimating that just as Zipporah, Moshe’s wife, had become a bona fide member of the Jewish nation, other gentile women should also be allowed to consort with Jews and become part of the nation. Zimri was also accusing Moshe of wrongfully prosecuting the Jews, and proceeded himself to demonstratively cohabit with Kozbi, the Moabite princess. The situation was precarious, since Moshe was stunned by this ad hominem attack and did not refute Zimri’s argument.

It was at this point that Pinchas stepped in. According to Rav (Sanhedrin 82a), Pinchas knew a certain unusual halachic precept, which he thought could stop the plague:

“One who cohabits with a gentile women- zealots can slay him.”

Pinchas approached Moshe and quoted this halacha. Moshe responded that Pinchas himself should be the zealot who fulfills the letter of the halacha. Pinchas was then left with the responsibility of deciding whether he was acting from a legitimate sense of zealousness for G-d or simply out of uncontrollable rage and fury over the Israelites hapless situation. The halacha stresses that only a zealot can perform this act of retribution, and if the perpetrator is not acting out of zealousness, he is a murderer. Pinchas took the plunge, killed Zimri, and was immediately excoriated by the tribes as one acting out of impure motives:

“Did you see this son of Yitro, whose grandfather used to fatten calves for idolatry, and he went and killed a tribal prince of Israel?”

The tribes were claiming that since Pinchas himself was descended from idol worshipers, he could not have been a true zealot and therefore was not qualified to mete out punishment .G-d thereupon granted him a special “covenant” of peace and cited his descent from Aharon the high priest. A man with such credentials could not have acted out of murderous rage, since his nature was like his grandfather-a man of peace and love.

We can see that Pinchas stood here before the same internal dilemma of the whistleblower. Am I acting from a sense of moral conviction, or am I simply succumbing to a desire to hurt others, or to be a glorious hero? Pinchas must have agonized and then decided- after checking his true motives- that he must act.

But besides the internal decision there were repercussions of a different nature. Pinchas later became a priest, dedicated to blessing his brothers and spreading peace and goodwill. Could he maintain such a position after his violent act? Moreover, had he not corrupted his character simply by being involved in murder, even a legitimate form of murder?

The Ohr Hachaim, Rabbi Chaim Ben Atar, relates how he asked the king’s executioner if he enjoyed his macabre profession. The executioner replied that he got an increased desire to kill from all his executions. Based on this, the Ohr Hachaim explained that when fulfilling a Mitsva which involves brutality, such as the destruction of a city of idol-worshipers, one needs divine mercy so as not to be corrupted by this act. It is primarily for this reason that G-d confers on Pinchas “My covenant of peace”, in order to offset the deleterious impact on Pinchas’s character. Only then could he function as a priest and pursue the goal of loving his fellow Jews (An integral part of a priest’s blessing is ” to bless G-d’s nation with love”)

We can learn from this incident that a whistleblower should consult with others before he acts as Pinchas did, and should also carefully evaluate his inner motivation in exposing wrongdoing. If he is convinced that his actions stem from pure motives, he is obligated to blow the whistle and can rest assured that he will merit divine assistance and his own moral integrity will not be compromised by his actions.

This column presents general principles for approaching business ethics topics. For specific guidelines, please refer to a halachic authority.

Rabbi Yoel Domb is a graduate of JCT and a member of the faculty of the JCT Bet Midrash. He was awarded a fellowship from the Center for Business Ethics for the academic year 2000-2001. He is currently researching topics of business ethics in Jewish Law and is preparing a curriculum to facilitate the teaching of these topics in Rabbinical seminaries (Yeshivot).