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Whistle-Blowing in Jewish Law

Whistle-Blowing in Jewish Law

What to say, how to say and if to say, in the light of classic sources in halachah

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Dear Rabbi,

I’ve recently become aware that there is widespread altering of signed applications, forgery and misrepresentation in my workplace. Those most successful in the office say the job cannot be done without some “creativity.” I don’t know if the unethical practices hurt anyone, but I really want to tell the management. The problem is, I may be putting many people out of a job, or worse, ruining their careers.

Should I impose my understanding of what is ethical on the company, or should I wait and see if a gray area emerges?

Reply:

I understand your dilemma. It is painful to stand by while others behave unethically, but as you have noted, before we take action we must ensure that it will not have unintended consequences.

With so many recent high-profile cases of whistle-blowing, modern ethicists have been busy debating under what circumstances it is appropriate to inform on others. For the most part, the debate has centered on the balance between one’s loyalty and obligation to the employer on one hand, and freedom of speech, as well as the duty to try to stop wrongdoing, on the other.

As we will see, Jewish law has an entirely different perspective. In fact, “freedom of speech” and “loyalty to the employer,” as we understand them, do not really exist in Torah thought.

Before getting to the issue of whistle-blowing, however, halachah may require you to first confront the wrongdoers personally.

Obligation to Admonish a Wrongdoer

If you see your friends doing something wrong, Torah requires you to confront and admonish them. As the verse states, “You shall not hate your brother in your heart. You shall surely rebuke your fellow, but you shall not bear a sin on his account.”1 This obligation exists regardless of whether the action harms others, and the requirement lasts until the wrongdoer begins to curse or scream at you.2

Halachah, however, provides a range of exceptions to this law. First, the obligation applies only to close acquaintances or friends with whom you feel comfortable (even if they won’t necessarily listen to you). If the wrongdoers are not your friends, then in all likelihood your rebuke will only provoke them to hate or to take revenge against you (both Torah prohibitions in their own right).3

Second, if a) the sin is unintentional,4 b) it is not a violation of a biblical prohibition, and c) you believe that the person will not heed your rebuke, then it is not proper to admonish the wrongdoer.5

Finally, if rebuking the person will result in a financial loss for you, you are not obligated to do it.6

In the ideal situation, the wrongdoers are your friends, and after you politely approach and admonish them, they realize their error and correct their ways. Unfortunately, things don’t usually work out that way.

In a situation where there is no harm to others, you can usually leave things be. But more often than not there is a third party being harmed, either physically or financially, and in that case Torah may require you to inform others so that corrective measures can be taken.

Blowing the Whistle

In general, repeating an evil report, even a true one, about someone else violates the biblical commandment, “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.”7 In fact, depending on the situation, lashon hara, or talebearing, can violate up to 31 Torah commandments.8

Nevertheless, in a situation where the wrongdoing will result in physical9 or financial10 harm to others, it is mandatory to report it.

Halachah makes a distinction, though, between the obligation to report a physical, life-threatening harm and the obligation to report a financial one.

If you are in a situation where you can save someone from physical danger, then you are obligated to do so even if it means incurring financial loss.11 As the verse states, “You shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.”12 But you are not obligated to save others from a financial loss at your own expense, though it is praiseworthy to do so.13

Additional Guidelines for Whistle-Blowing

Having ascertained that a situation may call for whistle-blowing, it is important to keep in mind that the prohibition of talebearing is still in effect. In light of this, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan (commonly known as the Chafetz Chaim) outlines certain conditions that, when met, suspend the prohibition of talebearing:14

  • The objective of revealing the wrongdoing must be a legitimate benefit, such as righting the wrong done to the victim.
  • You must be certain that the information you have about the wrongdoing is factually correct, and know for certain that the person you are accusing is guilty.
  • You may report only the relevant facts objectively, without exaggeration; any exaggeration violates the prohibition of speaking falsehood.
  • Before telling others, you must first satisfy your obligation of admonishing the wrongdoers yourself (as outlined above).
  • The disclosure should not cause greater harm than is necessary for the achievement of the whistle-blower’s objective.
  • There must be no other means by which the desired effect can be achieved.
  • The report should be motivated solely by the desire to right a wrong. If the motivation is a long-standing grudge or a desire to ridicule the wrongdoer, the report should not be made.

Whistle-blowers face a harsh dilemma: do they reveal the wrongdoing and face the consequences, or do they keep quiet? Contemporary society has not treated whistle-blowers very well. Unfortunately, many are either fired outright or passed over when it comes time for promotions. Nevertheless, in many instances Torah requires us to inform the proper authorities when someone does wrong.

Hopefully, the above guidelines can serve as a starting point to bring clarity to your dilemma. No two situations are alike, however, and you should consult a rabbi regarding your specific circumstances.

Footnotes
2.
Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 608:2; Shulchan Aruch ha-Rav, ibid. 608:4–6.
3.
Rabbi Yehudah he-Chassid in Sefer Chassidim 413; Tanya, Likkutei Amarim, ch. 32; Shulchan Aruch ha-Rav, Orach Chaim 156:7.
4.
Shulchan Aruch ha-Rav ibid.
5.
Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 608:2; Shulchan Aruch ha-Rav, ibid. 608:4–6.
6.
Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah 334:48.
8.
Chafetz Chaim, prohibitions 1–17 and positive commandments 1–14.
9.
Talmud, Sanhedrin 73a; Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 426:1.
10.
Sifra on Leviticus 19:16; Shulchan Aruch ha-Rav, Choshen Mishpat, Hilchot Metziah u-Fikadon 33; Chafetz Chaim, Be’er Mayim Chaim, Hilchot Issurei Rechilut 9:1.
11.
Talmud, Sanhedrin 73a and Rashi ad loc.
13.
See Tur and Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 264:1, and Shulchan Aruch ha-Rav, Choshen Mishpat, Hilchot Metziah u-Fikadon 33–34.
14.
Chafetz Chaim, Hilchot Issurei Lashon Hara 10:1–17 and Hilchot Rechilut 9:1–15.
Rabbi Yehuda Shurpin responds to questions for Chabad.org's Ask the Rabbi service.
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Anonymous CA February 26, 2017

You, your colleagues, and your employer may be living in different "worlds" with differing values, attitudes, and beliefs. For example, a lower-ordered lie may be justifiable to protect a higher-ordered truth or value. Whistleblowing too can often wrongly hinder higher-ordered truths and values that the whistleblower is unaware of! Reply

Ty Scholl February 14, 2017

Amen! Well said and excellent article! Thanks for posting! Reply

jade olivo August 16, 2015

Thank you. I am faced with this decision today, and this article really has helped clear my mind in order to benefit my meeting later on this morning. Reply

Anonymous Asheville, NC via chabaddch.com September 21, 2014

Nature of Position Whistle Blowing is not technically a matter of reporting misbehavior in the work place. Whistle Blowing is more accurately defined as reporting violations of legal obligations in certain positions upon which the organizational contract is based. For instance, fiduciary responsibility requires certain reporting standards for the benefit of the stock holders of a company. This is a legal obligation. Working in areas that are regulated by law is another example. If you have legally mandated work and reporting requirements, then you have legal obligations to report violations and omissions. Being involved in misrepresentation and fraud bears larger responsibilities than simply worrying about the misbehavior of some fellow employees in the office. These incidences are difficult as they are usually under the direction of senior executives, and for their benefit. Fiduciary positions have responsibility to stock holders. Others may have statutory obligations which require reporting. Reply

Susan TX July 9, 2014

The Greater Good Speaking to individuals is completely inappropriate and can backfire. In my opinion, one should seek the advice of the Human Resources rep.to let them decide what action to take. ALL the facts (as much as possible) should be gathered and taken to this party to determine the best course of action. I do think it is important to do this. This will protect the person revealing the information, the company, and the client. Keep in mind, however, that the Human Resources rep. is loyal only to the company in order to prevent lawsuits primarily.
This takes the problem out of the hands of the employee and can possibly release them from liability should future legal issues arise. One cannot handle problems like this alone. Once HR is contacted then one can drop the matter and continue with their function at work with a clear conscience. Just my opinion. Reply

Esther Liba NJ July 7, 2014

Don't "say something" without asking a rav first This is obviously a very serious conversation. Years ago, in my personal opinion, something unethical occurred in my place of business. After consulting a rav; however, I discovered that, "halakhically," no transgression had taken place. I learned from this that an individual's judgment (i.e., my own) about such things does not necessarily constitute a wrongdoing. Ask an expert before you assume. Reply

Anonymous nz July 7, 2014

whistle-blowing in Jewish law Being in such situations places a lot of pressure on a person , feeling lost in a complicated web, doubting one's judgment constantly.
There is a very thin line between being a whistle-blower solving a problem and ending up as a scapegoat.
Having an ethical decision making map such as this would help many.
I wish I had read this years ago ! Thank you for this article. Reply

Susan Levitsky July 7, 2014

Not helpful There are so many ifs ands and buts in whistle-blowing that you have just about said it is not necessary to do it. A person in this position cannot just go to fellow employees and tell them he thinks what they are doing is wrong. That definitely sets him up for being the fall guy when the boss finds out about the cheating. If he is absolutely sure about the facts he should send an anonymous letter to the boss informing him of the facts and let the boss take it from there. It is not ethical to stand by and watch cheating going on when there are financial consequences for someone. Even if there is no loss involved, which I doubt, these people are acting in an unethical manner and that is not good for any company. Reply

Anonymous July 6, 2014

I,too, work in an environment where this goes on. I will, however never do it myself. It may not cause any harm to anyone else but if any of them ever get CAUGHTdoing it great harm will come to them. Reply

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