Parshat Mishpatim

Cartoon image of one woman whispering into another's ear.  The listener has wide eyes.

Shemot (23: 1-3) (Robert Alter, trans.)
You shall not bear a false rumor. You shall not put your hand with the guilty to be a harmful witness. You shall not follow the many for evil, and you shall not bear witness is a dispute to go askew, to skew it in support of the many.

Robert Alter
Your shall not bear a false rumor: …The prohibition on bearing false rumor is reminiscent in formulation of the third of the Ten Commandments, but instead of pertaining to solemn oaths, it addresses the capacity of ordinary speech to do harm.

You shall not follow the many for evil: …cling to one’s sense of what is right despite the temptation to follow popular opinion, including when popular opinion is bent on the perversion of justice.

You shall not accept a false report: Heb. לֹא תִשָׂא , as the Targum [Onkelos renders]: You shall not accept a false report. [This is] a prohibition against accepting slander (Mechilta, Pes. 118a, Mak. 23a), and for a judge [it dictates] that he should not hear the plea of one litigant until his opponent arrives (Mechilta, Sanh. 7b).

Note that the term for false report is lashon hara, which in Jewish law does not mean factually untrue, but are ill-intended statements. What is the difference between a lie and casting something in a bad light, even it is strictly true? Rashi’s comment speaks to accepting lashon hara. How do you understand what it means to accept lashon hara?

Sukkah 32b (Talmud, Steinsaltz commentary and translation, Sefaria)
[This section is a discussion of plants acceptable for use as the “myrtle” during Sukkah. A “myrtle” must have two characteristics: braided leaves and leaf density that obscures the branches. An oleander has both characteristics but it is rejected because it is harmful.]

The Gemara suggests: And say it is the Oriental plane tree, whose leaves are in a braid-like configuration.
The Gemara answers: We require a tree whose leaves obscure its tree, and that is not the case with an Oriental plane tree. The Gemara suggests: And say the verse is referring to oleander, which has both characteristics. Abaye said: It is written with regard to the Torah: “Its ways are ways of pleasantness” (Proverbs 3:17), and that is not the case with the oleander tree, because it is a poisonous plant and its sharp, thorn-like leaves pierce the hand of one holding it. Rava said: The unfitness of the oleander is derived from here: “Love truth and peace” (Zechariah 8:19), and poisonous plants that pierce are antithetical to peace.

If the Torah’s ways “are ways of pleasantness” and “love, truth, and peace” what does that mean about interpretations of mitzvot? Something leading to hate, lying, and discord, might be …?

Rabbi Wolbe builds from this text that truth must not just reflect factual truth, but must also have positive intent — for the good. He also makes a more subtle point, that the truth must include different perspectives. A statement is not whole unless it combines “love, truth, and peace.” In other words, in addition to be true, it must also serve a good purpose and reflect multiple perspectives.

Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe
The attempt to tell one’s version of the story first, does not mean that his account his false. Yet, since his intention is to cause the judge to have a bias toward his version of the story, thereby harming his opponent, his words are labeled as false.

… We must bear in mind that it is not merely false words from which we must run, but also true words said with a negative or harmful intention. “But it is true,” is not an excuse for a harmful word, because in reality there is no greater falsehood than that!

What are concrete examples you’ve heard or seen that were true but done for harmful purposes? Sam Ervin liked to a tell a story of his first congressional campaign in Florida, when he was accused of being a “known thespian”. There are, of course, less funny, more mundane and more common experiences of damaging gossip, which can be harmful to a community.

What might be the limits to this idea that something true which has harmful intent is false? What if a person is a danger to others?

You shall not follow the majority for evil: If you see wicked people perverting justice, do not say, “Since they are many, I will follow them.”

For Rabbi Henach Leibowitz this means we are influenced by the world around us, and to avoid this we must seek separation. This is not always possible or even desirable; you may lose much that is also good in the world by separating from it. Paradoxically, separating into an echo-chamber might make it even more difficult to recognize our own mistakes.

What are ways that you can sustain independent thought in your life? Or support a diversity of perspectives within groups? How do you balance honoring different perspectives while also being able to act collectively, with common purpose?

Conformity to popular opinions and “group-think” are real and damaging. As a very concrete example, the accident prevention literature in aviation and engineering is very concerned with how “group-think” can lead to bad decision-making. Do you have examples from your own life?

What are ways or practices that might help us separate while remaining engaged with the world?