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?
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.”
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.
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.
This is especially true when it comes to revealing the inner workings and deliberative processes of a court or similar institution. 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.”
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.
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.”
Under certain conditions, one can reveal private information that will save someone from financial losses.
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.
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.