As a rule, most people seem to think that there's nothing morally wrong in spreading negative information about others as long as the information is true. Jewish law takes a different view. Perhaps that's why the Hebrew term lashon ha-ra (literally, "bad language" or "bad tongue") has no precise equivalent in English. For unlike slander, which is universally condemned as immoral because it's false, lashon ha-ra is by definition true. It's the dissemination of accurate information that will lower the status of the person to whom it refers. I translate it as "negative truths."
Jewish law forbids spreading negative truths about anyone unless the person to whom you're speaking needs the information. It's a serious offense, one that has been addressed by many non-Jewish ethicists as well. Two centuries ago, Jonathan K. Lavater, a Swiss theologian and poet, offered a still apt guideline for the spreading of such news: "Never tell evil of a man if you do not know it for a certainty, and if you know it for a certainty, then ask yourself, 'Why should I tell it?'"
Intention has a great deal to do with the circumstances in which it's prohibited to speak negative truths. The same statement, depending on the context, can constitute a compliment, gossip of the nondefamatory sort, or the more serious sin of lashon ha-ra.
For example, if you say that a person known to have limited funds gave $100 to a certain charity, this would probably raise the person's stature because people would be impressed by his generosity. But if you say that a wealthy individual gave $100 to the same cause, the effect would be to diminish respect for her; she would now be thought of as miserly. Such a statement, therefore, is lashon ha-ra; it might be true, but it lowers respect for the person and is no one else's business.
Unfortunately, this doesn't deter many people from speaking negative truths. Such gossip is often so interesting that it impels many of us to violate the Golden Rule, "Do unto others as you would have others do unto you." Although we'd probably want similarly embarrassing information about ourselves to be kept quiet, many of us refuse to be equally discreet about others' sensitive secrets.
The injunction against lashon ha-ra doesn't apply only to the use of words. Making a face when someone's name is mentioned, rolling one's eyes, winking, or saying sarcastically, "So-and-so is very smart" are all violations of the law. Since lashon ha-ra is considered anything that lowers another person's status, it's irrelevant whether one uses a nonverbal technique to commit it. Jewish law calls this behavior avak lashon ha-ra (the "dust of lashon ha-ra").
Other examples of such "dust" include innuendo--"Don't mention Paula's name to me. I don't want to say what I know about her." It's equally wrong to imply that there's something derogatory about a person's earlier life: "Who of us who knew Jonathan years ago would have guessed that he'd achieve the success he has now?"
The "dust of lashon ha-ra" encompasses a whole range of stratagems by which people sometimes damage reputations without saying anything explicitly critical. For example, it's morally wrong to show someone a letter you've received that contains spelling mistakes if all you wish to do is cause the reader to have a diminished respect for the letter writer's intelligence.
Excerpted with permission from the author.