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Am I Permitted to Reveal Private Conversations?

Am I Permitted to Reveal Private Conversations?

The controversy surrounding former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’s new memoir

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Question:

In his controversial memoir “Duty,” former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates reveals private conversations with President Obama and other politicians. On one hand, this seems to be a betrayal of trust; Gates is revealing information that was told to him in confidence. On the other hand, this revelation does give the American people important information about their leadership. In a republic, this is certainly needed.

So what does the Torah say about a situation like this? Would a Jew, who is bound by Torah law, be permitted to write such a book?

Response:

Revealing secrets is prohibited under the Biblical injunction, “You shall not go around as a gossipmonger amidst your people; you shall not stand by [the shedding of] your fellow's blood. I am the L-rd.”1

This injunction is so important that, according to the Midrash, it was one of the primary factors that contributed to our liberation from Egypt:

In the merit of four things, the Jews were redeemed from Egypt—they did not change their names; they did not change their language; they did not disclose each other's secrets; and they did not break barriers of morality.2

This prohibition can extend even to conversations that you were not specifically told to keep secret. In fact, the very first verse in Leviticus states, “And He called to Moses, and the Lord spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting, to say [leimor].” The word “leimor” means “to say over to others.” From this extra word, the Talmud understands that if G‑d would have not have authorized Moses to share the communique that followed, he would have been forbidden to do so.3

This is especially true when it comes to revealing the inner workings and deliberative processes of a court or similar institution.4 The Talmud relates that Rabbi Ami expelled a student from the study hall because he had disclosed the details of a confidential discussion that had taken place in the study hall 22 years prior, saying, “This man reveals secrets.”5

However, before rushing to condemn Mr. Gates based on the above prohibitions, we need to stress that there are some notable exceptions:

  • According to some authorities, if no apparent harm will be caused by revealing the conversation, and there was no indication that the content was intended to remain confidential (e.g. the conversation was not conducted in a hushed tone or secluded area), while it still may be laudable to not reveal the information, there is no prohibition to do so.6

  • A doctor who has information about a condition that may put the public at risk (such as severely impaired vision or a contagious disease) must share his knowledge with the appropriate parties—even if the patient specifically requests that he keep it a secret. In fact, if the doctor withholds the information, he may be guilty of the Biblical prohibition, “Do not stand by [the shedding of] your fellow’s blood.”7

  • Under certain conditions, one can reveal private information that will save someone from financial losses.8

  • If a person is sharing the negative information for a constructive and beneficial purpose, the prohibition against doing so does not apply. For example, if you are asked for information about a potential spouse or employee, and you know information that would prevent serious harm (e.g. the potential groom has an extremely bad temper, or the employee is a thief), you are permitted to reveal this information.

    In this case, however, bear in mind the words of the Chofetz Chaim, the authoritative work on the matter of forbidden and permitted speech:

    In such a situation that the information may be revealed, the one asking for the private information should stress that he is not asking out of curiosity, but for a specific constructive reason; namely, he is thinking of making a match or hiring the person.

    Additionally, when answering, take care to keep in mind that one is only permitted to reveal the information for a constructive and beneficial purpose, but not out of malicious intent. This means being careful not to reveal more than what is necessary, and it goes without saying that any exaggeration is prohibited.9

So how does this apply to the defense secretary’s new book?

Since most politicians are extremely careful with what they say and reveal to the public, we must assume that the private conversations discussed in the book were indeed intended to remain private. However, as we discussed, this does not automatically mean that one is prohibited from revealing them.

I make no claims or judgments about Mr. Gate’s true intentions in writing the book (whether they were noble or malicious), and I’m hardly in a position to judge whether the revelations have a beneficial purpose. If the author were writing a salacious or malicious book just for the sake of revealing “the truth,” for no beneficial reason, it would definitely be prohibited. However, a valid argument can be made that in the case of important information about politicians (as opposed to celebrities), which, among other things, will help voters make an informed decision come election time, one is permitted to reveal this information.

Footnotes
1.
Leviticus 19:16. See Semag Prohibition 9, Hagahot Maimonis on Hilchot Deiot 7:7, Magen Avraham on Shulchan Aruch Orech Chaim 156.
2.
Bamidbar Rabbah 20:21.
3.
Talmud Yoma 4a.
4.
Talmud Sanhedin 29a.
5.
Ibid. 31a.
6.
Chofetz Chaim, Be’er Mayim Chaim, Hilchot Loshon Harah 2:27. See however, Shulchan Aruch Harav, Orech Chaim 156:14 where he cites the prohibition of revealing private information without any qualifications.
7.
Tzitz Eliezer 15:13, citing response of Chelkat Yaakov 3:136.
8.
See Sefer Hamitzvot, prohibition 297, Mishna Torah Hilchot Rotzeach 1:14 and Chofetz Chaim in Be’er Mayim Chaim, Hilchot Rechilut 9:1-3.
9.
Chofetz Chaim, Hilchot Loshon Harah 4:10-11.
Rabbi Yehuda Shurpin responds to questions for Chabad.org's Ask the Rabbi service.
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David Bloch January 22, 2014

Mr. Abrams... Good point! Just because something is common or usual practice doesn't make it ok. Just because maintaining confidentiality may not be expected, or a breach may not be surprising to any involved parties, shouldn't, in and of itself, mean that it's ok.
Regarding the special protection of presidential privilege: I was unaware that such privilege existed. That Gates said that all which he revealed in his book had been already made public (leaked, I guess), would be salient.
Another issue would be that there may be plenty that Gates did not reveal, and, as you pointed out, what is not revealed might be unknowable because it was not revealed. Gates may be a far more trustworthy confidant than we'll ever know.... Reply

Rick Abrams Beverly Hills January 21, 2014

"everybody is doing it" is NOT a defense The fact that many people violate the trust others place in them does not make it OK to perpetuate the practice.

While Washington may run on leaks, it also runs on bribery and extortion, which are two sides on one coin. Frequency does not make legitimacy.

When people do not breach their trust, we do not know about it because they say nothing. Thus, no one may conclude that no one keeps secrets, and therefore, I can blab whatever I want. There may be more secret keepers than secret breakers.

If the conversation falls under a recognized "secrecy" such as Presidential Privilege, the President is the holder of the privilege and the other party may not testify to what was said even in a court of law.

This area of the law is complex. While communications may fall under a privilege, observations which were not meant to be communicative in nature do not fall under the privilege. Reply

David bloch January 20, 2014

I WAS RIGHT!!! (I think...) Sunday night, on book TV, Gates gave what I thought to be great, long, interview, regarding his book, and his thoughts on all sorts of related matters. Regarding the question if breaching confidentiality, he pointed out that the CIA, Defense Dept., White House, has more leaks than a sieve, and these leaks were occurring all along, for which reason his revelations were not news, to anyone who keeps up with thr
media on such matters. He also pointed out that the people he was commenting on did not have any substantial expectation of privacy, thus his revelations and that he made them was, according to the way he sees it, and what I described in an earlier posting, acceptable in the context of Washington, for those reasons.
Like I said, if you want a loyal friend in Washington, buy a dog..... Reply

David Bloch January 19, 2014

It sticks in my mind that, somewhere in The Talmud there is a comment regarding what a secret is, which includes that if you have a secret, and then tell another reason, it's no longer a secret. Going back to my original comment, nobody in Washington who expects loyalty, total trustworthiness, etc. I would be very, very surprised if Obama or Biden or anyone else mentioned in the book were truly surprised that Gates wrote about who he did, and said what he said.
There's a saying in Washington: if you want a loyal and trustworthy friend in Washington, buy a dog..... Reply

Anonymous london January 19, 2014

great stuff even i could not write an essay that long!! Reply

David Bloch Carlsbad, CA January 18, 2014

Gates has seen and heard plenty. The public had a right to know that they should be suspicious of the thinking, motivation, and behavior of politicians. The public deserves to know how and why they are being represented, how tax money is spent, what the powers that be are doing on their behalf.
Politicians are cynical lot, anything but naive, often ethical and moral considerations are secondary to their self interests. They all know quite well that a secret in Washington is not safe, and "confidential" is a relative term. Perhaps there wasn't a realistic expectation of privacy, thus what Gates did could be considered OK.
Also, this information is highly relevant historically. Perhaps it could be seen as almost an obligation of Gates to reveal what he knows, in service to posterity.
Maybe what Gates should have done was waited a decade or two before publishing. I'm assuming what he wrote is truthful and accurate. If he intentionally misreported, that's a whole other issue. Reply

Rick Abrams Beverly Hills January 17, 2014

Dear "I am on a trial and I have to reveal a private letter in order to prevent the eviction of someone from her house."

I think you have to follow the secular law and there are explicit rules about what is confidential and what is not. Just because someone tells you something does not make it "confidential."
Reply

Fred Ehrlich Lynnwood, Washington via jewishsnohomish.com January 17, 2014

Obama is not G-d. He is our employee. Obama is not G-d. He is our employee. Reply

IZ nyc via chabadw60s.com January 17, 2014

Robert Gates is not Jewish As the ad goes, Jews "answer to a higher authority." The validity of Gates' Duty and references to Obama helps book sales and promo interviews. Whether Gates is bearing false witness or divulging secrets is up to history to decide. Gates is not Jewish and is under different moral codes. Reply

Anonymous January 16, 2014

Re: for pity sake... If I understood what the author wrote, it is pretty clear that if the purpose of revealing these conversations is just to sell books, then it would indeed be prohibted. Reply

Anonymous New York, NY via chabadroslyn.com January 16, 2014

Historical value The author concludes that Mr. Gates' book may help voters make future electoral decisions, and therefore Mr. Gates' disclosures are permissible. However, Mr. Obama cannot stand for re-election, and so that exception to Mr. Gates' book is not applicable.

I do think another exception would be to make a complete historical record available to the public.

Should there not also be an exception for correcting public information that elected officials have misstated - accidently or on purpose - where the matter is important to the public Reply

Susie Davidson Brookline January 16, 2014

very helpful to me as a journalist And as a human being! Reply

Anonymous January 15, 2014

For pity and mercy, is this sense? Revealing confidential conversations to sell a book? is this honorable? does this make a person more trustworthy for the next relationship? Would YOU trust him with your confidential information?. Does G-d reveal our secrets that we should be above G-d's example? Has not the next party has been fairly warned regarding this man.? Reply

Peter Spiro WA January 15, 2014

Very clear Very helpful. If it is constructive and useful, fine. But if it malicious and slanderous leave it be.

Take no pleasure in revealing another's private life for the sake of scandal and titillating gossip. No tabloid journalism.

But if it useful and good and constructive then it is almost as if it necessary.

Love your neighbor as self. And is this not what Moses was doing by getting the Torah and handing it over to those who could not? Reply

Jack Bidnik January 15, 2014

Gates revealed what everybody already knew. He merely corroborated it. Every Democrat was opposed to sending more troops to Afghanistan. They said it was because it would not work. They said that about the surge in Iraq, but it did, an embarrassment. They could not afford another embarrassment, so they could not stick to that position on the Afghan war. In both cases they hoped it would not work, but it did. A person has a duty to expose such dangerous hypocrisy, to corroborate it, no matter when he is able to do so.
(I don't blame you if you don't want to print this, but if you don't want politics dragged into the question, don't start it.) Reply

Anonymous france January 15, 2014

thanks I am on a trial and I have to reveal a private letter in order to prevent the eviction of someone from her house Reply

bob st clair bolivar mo. January 14, 2014

what we are taught... pray for our leaders is what we are taught...is this the letter of the law ?or the truth of the law?... Reply

Sheldon USA January 14, 2014

Just a question How do we know what Gates "reveals" is actually true and that he is not getting sensational just to sell the book? Reply

Anonymous January 14, 2014

Law about revealing private conversations Does this come under the same umbrella of the Law concerning Lashon Hara ?
Thank you Reply

Angela Hoffberg Richland, MS January 14, 2014

Revealing Private Conversations There are times when we should keep quiet and other times when we should not. It depends on the circumstances. When I sense I can't keep something private, I tell the other person not to tell me. Most of the time, I don't believe in secrets, because Light isn't reached this way. But there are times to not tell until the other person is ready. Reply