When is it ethical to be a tattle-tale?

Q. Some kids at my school relieve their boredom during class by booby-trapping the chairs in the auditorium. I’m afraid that someone could really be hurt if they sit down in one of the “fixed-up” seats. I let the teacher know by writing an anonymous letter. Was this the right thing?

A. Deciding when to inform on wrongdoers is one of the most wrenching dilemmas we can face. No one wants to alienate himself from the group by snitching on his buddies; yet remaining silent seems to evade responsibility – especially if someone could get hurt.

It may seem that the most ethical route would be to look past our petty loyalty to our friends, and “act responsibly” on behalf of society by reporting bad behavior. But Jewish tradition opens our eyes to additional ethical dimensions.

In general, Judaism condemns informing on others, viewing it as a very serious transgression. For instance, the Torah clearly shows how the tragic conflict between Joseph and his brothers started when he told his father about their misconduct – even though the commentators tell us that he reported only genuine and serious infractions. (Genesis 37:2 and Rashi’s commentary.)

One simple reason is that giving credence to honest reports can open the door to malicious slanders of every kind. But there is a more profound reason as well.

We would certainly be reluctant to report wrongdoing if we knew it was inadvertent, or that the person sincerely regretted his or her acts. Judaism encourages us to remember that people are basically good beings, created in God’s image, and generate an environment where every infraction is viewed in this benign fashion. An atmosphere of trust encourages people to look at themselves in a positive way – which is obviously the most effective way of preventing misbehavior.

Of course, this doesn’t mean you should never avert danger by alerting the proper authorities — just that you should first consider other possibilities. The ideal solution is to go straight to the source of the problem through a non-threatening approach to the wrongdoer. The Torah tells us, “Don’t hate your brother in your heart; reprove your fellow man, and don’t bear a grudge towards him.” (Leviticus 19:17.) We should confront our problems as directly as possible.

Now I admit that a little lecture from a peer doesn’t always work wonders on the behavior of teen-age boys. If this approach doesn’t work, or if you’re sure it won’t, the next alternative is: “fix the problem, not the blame.” If you don’t think that the vandalism will recur, then there is no need to notify the teacher; it’s enough to tell the custodian that the chairs need repair.

However, it you don’t think approaching the boys directly will be productive, and you are concerned that they may continue to create a hazard, then it is proper to notify an authority figure like a teacher. It’s best if your letter doesn’t mention any names.

The teacher too should try not to overreact. Unless the vandals are a real threat to order, an announcement at the beginning of class that students should please respect school property would probably be better than an ambush designed to catch them in the act.

SOURCES: Chafetz Chaim, Laws of Slander, chapter 10.