What does Judaism say about leaking confidential information?

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By Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel

Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel

CHULA VISTA, California–Recently someone asked me, “Does Judaism have any thoughts on the Wikileaks fiasco? Where does freedom of the press and the public’s right to know become a security threat, or worse, in Jewish thought?” This issue is not only concerned with the arrest and trial of Julian Asange; it extends to leaks of other government documents from various sources. What does Judaism say about this?”

I thought about his question and here are some preliminary thoughts on the issue that pertain to the gentleman’s question. 

Healthy human relationships are predicated upon a principle of trust. Whenever someone tells you something of a personal nature, it is with the understanding that you will not violate that confidence. Whether a person is a physician, lawyer, or clergy—the world of interpersonal relationships requires that people treat one another in a trustworthy manner.

When examining the question of revealing secrets, the ancient Judaic philosopher named Ben Sira offered these practical remarks almost 2200 years ago.

  • Cursed be gossips and the double-tongued, for they destroy the peace of many. A meddlesome tongue subverts many and makes   them refugees among the peoples. It destroys walled cities, and overthrows powerful dynasties. A meddlesome tongue can drive virtuous women from their homes and rob them of the fruit of their toil. Whosoever heeds it has no rest, nor can he dwell in peace.  A blow from a whip raises a welt, but a blow from the tongue smashes bones.  Many have fallen by the edge of the  sword, but not as many as by the tongue. [1]

Julian Assange’s  WikiLeaks is an Internet organization that specializes in revealing the secrets most governments prefer to keep hidden. His website began in 2006 and it has produced over 1.2 million documents. There is hardly a country anywhere that has not been embarrassed in one manner of another.

Halachic literature has much to say on this topic. The Talmud mentions that when someone reveals a confidential matter to another, it should not be disclosed unless the person it involves gives express permission [2].

* Early Halachic Discussions

In the early medieval period, Rabbanu Gershom (ca. 9th century) decreed that anyone who reads the mail of another is subject to excommunication [3]. The principle applies no less to stealing trade secrets. According to another Talmudic passage, respecting one’s personal privacy applies no less to the people living in one’s home! R. Akiba warned his son, “My son, don’t even suddenly enter your own home, and certainly not the home of your fellow, without any forewarning.” [4]  Some midrashic texts suggest this is why the High Priest used to wear bells on his garments so that his arrival might not frighten the priests while they were carrying out their priestly duties.

But is revealing information always forbidden? Not necessarily. Sometimes one has a moral imperative to discover confidential information when the evidence is necessary for preventing a serious crime. [5] This applies no less to opening a letter when the intention is to prevent a crime from taking place.[6]

* The Slippery Slope

This depends upon the circumstances. Jonathan Pollard revealed information to Israel about Sadaam Hussein’s plan to build a nuclear reactor. This was information that the United States State Department was legally bound to share with Israel, but chose not to. Israel used the information to destroy the nuclear reactors, but Pollard is serving a life sentence for committing “treason,” when in reality he was guilty of spying for a friendly nation.

In the end, Pollard’s disclosure probably saved millions of lives from being harmed. There are shades of gray that are not easily discernible. If the information being conveyed serves a positive purpose as it did in the Pollard situation, a case could be made that revealing such information is permitted and even necessary.

On the other hand, if one’s motivation is merely to embarrass a country’s leaders, then the motivation is vindictive in nature and can only cause ill feelings between nation states. Gratuitous truth telling can be very dangerous, even fatal, to innocent people. Such behavior is immoral and Julian Assange is responsible for the unintended moral consequences of his disclosures.

The ancient philosopher Buddha expresses a similar thought, “Words have the power to destroy and heal. When words are both true and kind, they can change our world.”

*
Notes:

[1] Ben Sira 28:13-18

[2] BT Yoma 4b. However, the great early 20th century moralist, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, a.k.a. “Hafetz Hayyim” went one step further—one must not even reveal potentially damaging information even when it is about oneself either.

  • There is a famous story of how the Hafetz Hayim was once riding on a train to the city of Minsk and across from him sat a   young rabbinical student, who was studying the Hafetz Hayim’s famous ethical   tract on the Laws of Gossip. Unbeknownst that he was sitting next to   the author of the book, they started chatting with one another. The young man   said, “The famous Hafetz Hayim is a brilliant Sage!” The old pious rabbi   demurred, “I don’t think he is particularly brilliant.” The young man   countered, “Not only is he brilliant, he is also extremely pious!” The old   sage demurred once again, “I personally know him, and I can personally attest   he is not so ‘pious.’” The young student got angry and slapped the old rabbi   in the face, “How dare you insult the Gadol HaDor—the greatest Sage of our   generation?!” And they parted in Minsk. Later that evening the Hafetz Hayim gave a lecture on the Laws of Gossip. In the crowd listening was the young   student. After the lecture, he went up to the saintly rabbi and begged for  forgiveness, “I did not know who you really were…” The pious sage replied, “It is I who should ask you for forgiveness. You taught me a valuable lesson. Not   only is one forbidden to speak disparagingly about others, one is not allowed to speak disparagingly about oneself as well!”

[3] “Enactments of Rabbenu Gershom Meʾor ha-Golah,” quoted in Resp. Maharam of Rothenburg, ed. Prague, p. 160a.

[4] BT Pesaḥim 112a.

[5] The Mishnah of Sanhedrin 7:10 states that if someone wants to incriminate a person of the crime of idolatry, one may hide the witnesses and solicit the information from the culprit, who would ordinarily deny it in a court of law. According to the Minchat Hinnukh, this method may be done with any crime and evidently carried out in Jewish courts across Europe, (Rabbi Joseph Babad, Minat innukh, Commandment #462). Cf. Joseph David, Resp. Bet David, I, Yoreh Deah 158.

[6] Ḥayyim Palache, Resp. ikekei Lev, I,  Yoreh Deah 49.

*
Rabbi Samuel is spiritual leader of Temple Beth Sholom in Chula Vista.  He may be contacted at [email protected]

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