Where do you draw the line between self-defense and vindictiveness?
Q. After I was fired from an executive position at a known charity, I created a new foundation to advance my own programs for underprivileged youth. The executive director of the charity then began spreading horrible slanders about me. I have responded by sending a “truth team” of reliable colleagues to justify my actions, but I thought of another option: If I report to the state on all the financial irregularities of this director, who is a careless manager, he’ll lose his standing in the community and no one will pay attention to his slanders. Can I defend my reputation in this way? AR, USA
A. Your story, like many which cross my desk, demonstrates that charity work involves the same ethical challenges as business, and can be every bit as competitive. Conversely, business people trying to help the customer often have the same sense of dedication to employees in non-profit groups who are trying to aid the underprivileged.
Let’s turn to your question. Slandering others is considered one of the most severe transgressions in Jewish tradition. “Slander kills three people: the speaker, the listener, and the subject.” We can see the truth of this saying in your situation: the director’s statements are harming himself, the listeners who are deterred from supporting a worthy cause, and yourself. Most of all, his statements harm the underprivileged youngsters who will not be able to benefit from your programs.
On the one hand, the severity of the director’s attacks only augments your need to defend yourself. At the same time, the gravity of slander means that you need to be extra careful not to fall into the same trap as your former employer!
The basic guideline here is to carefully distinguish between acts that serve the direct purpose of establishing your credibility, and those which help your cause only indirectly by harming the credibility of the individual who is trying to tarnish your reputation.
Publicly defending your reputation and forcefully denying the charges against you is certainly proper and called for. So your truth teams are an appropriate and necessary response to the accusations you face. But acting vengefully to destroy the reputation of your accuser is not only unethical, but is likely to backfire by giving you the image of a disputatious and vindictive reputation.
REPORTING SOMEONE TO ACHIEVE A PUBLIC BENEFIT
Informing on someone to the authorities is also something that Jewish tradition generally condemns. As we explained at length in a previous column, this habit can create a culture of suspicion and distrust.
Of course, it is sometimes permissible to report someone’s misdeeds solely in order to bring about some kind of public benefit. If someone wanted to report to the state authorities for the sole reason that he wants to prevent tax dollars from being wasted on inefficient programs, that’s one thing. But if the motivation is to take vengeance and harm the individual, then informing is definitely wrong. The Torah tells us not to be vindictive (Leviticus 19:18), and the commentators explain that this principle is a basic necessity for civilized living.
Given your difficult past relationship, I think it would be extremely difficult for you to inform on your accuser with pure motivations solely to defend the fiscal integrity of your state. The proof is that you were never moved to take this step before he started denigrating you. Not only would your motives be impure, you might also find it difficult to maintain objectivity with regard to actual facts.
Therefore, you shouldn’t take any steps against your former colleague that are not directly related to your effort to rebut the accusations. This is not only good ethics but also good policy, because in the end it will strengthen your image and keep the door open to reconciliation with your former colleague, who may someday return to being a valuable ally.
One of the conventions of classical tragedy is that all of the main characters die at the end of the play. It is not surprising that vengeance is one of the most popular themes of these plays, since it is this instinct which has the greatest capacity for creating general destruction.
SOURCES: Babylonian Talmud Erkhin 15b; Chafetz Chaim I chapter 10, especially sections 13-14; Shulchan Arukh Choshen Mishpat 34:22, 388:9; Sefer HaChinukh 241.