For the week ending 10 December 2016 / 10 Kislev 5777

Forbidden Praise

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: Melanie

Dear Rabbi,

There are two people I know who are not on good terms. In my opinion one is the antagonist who makes up false accusations about the other. The antagonist, let’s call her A, was part of a group conversation where the other, let’s call her B, was mentioned. I took the opportunity to praise B to the others in a way that A would see how everyone thinks highly of B and thereby indirectly realize that her bad opinion of B is wrong. But, rather than A silently accepting the message, she started arguing how everybody’s good opinion of B is wrong. Afterwards, one of my friends said I was guilty of “lashon hara” (slander), since I “caused” A to speak against B. Can this be so? I praised B! It was A who spoke evil of her. Is possible that I transgressed lashon hara, not her?

Dear Melanie,

I certainly admire your good intentions in defending B and trying to thereby diffuse the tension between A and B. But as a mollified version of the adage implies, good intentions often pave the way to “undesirable” places.

And even if your good intentions should be acted upon, it seems it could and should have been done differently.

Regarding A, assuming you’re correct that she’s the antagonist and cause of the tension, if she spoke ill of B in front of the rest of the group, she certainly transgressed the prohibition of lashon hara herself. She didn’t have to speak that way, but she nevertheless chose to do so.

However, when you praised B in front of A, knowing that she thinks the opposite of her, perhaps intending to silence her in the presence of others, you actually set her up to speak against B in front of the very group you thought would silence her. In this way your praise of B was, in a sense, slandering her. Had you not intentionally praised B, A would not have attacked her as she did. Thus, your indirect role is also a form of lashon hara called “avak lashon hara” — “the dust of slander”.

This is derived from the verse that King Solomon wrote in his wisdom (Prov. 27:14), “He who blesses his friend in a loud voice early every morning, it shall be considered a curse for him”. The reason is as above, his intention to praise and benefit his friend ends up causing his friend harm, when, as a result of his praise, others disparage him (Rambam, De’ot 7:4).

Perhaps what should have been done, and may still be done, is as follows: Rather than your being involved directly, (since even beforehand, and certainly now, A perceives you to be partial), try to get someone whom A respects and would consider to be unbiased in this matter to speak to A privately without putting her on the spot and on the defense.

This person can empathize with A’s position while also asking her to consider that the reality might nevertheless be different than she thinks. This person might mention that without A’s realizing it, B feels, and appears to others, to be the victim. It might be suggested to A to consult with others privately and calmly with an honest intention to explore this possibility. If A agrees, others who she might consult should likewise be prepared to be both empathetic but honest. This might ultimately lead to a direct or mediated conversation between A and B to settle their differences.

With wisdom and sensitivity it is likely that peace may be established between A and B, or at least a cessation of hostilities reached. But if this is not the case, or until it is, one must certainly think seriously how praising someone to his or her enemies might induce lashon hara that the “praiser” might thereby have a part in.

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