Does Prohibited Speech Apply to the Internet?

The prohibition of Leviticus 19:16 around slander is usually presumed to refer primarily to verbal speech.

However, the prohibition actually extends to all forms of communication, including non-verbal forms of communication such as letter-writing, the publication of information in books or newspapers, or even communicative but non-verbal gestures like winking (cf. Sefer Chofetz Chayim, Hilchot Issurei L’shon Ha-ra 1:8, and also cf. Rashi’s comment on Leviticus 19:16, s.v. lo teileikh rakhil). 

Thus, as the ways in which we communicate become incrementally more complicated and sophisticated with each passing decade, so too do the laws governing defamatory speech also become more complicated.

The advent of the Internet in particular has brought new challenges to observing this mitzvah, as amply demonstrated by Rabbis Elliot Dorff and Elie K. Spitz in their responsum “Computer Privacy and the Modern Workplace,” which was approved by the CJLS in 2001.

From a consumer perspective, the Internet has brought moderns the ability to read, listen, and see in far greater quantity, and with far great diversity, than ever before.

In turn, this development exponentially increases the likelihood of engaging in forbidden forms of communication.

And this problem is only exacerbated by new and evolving genres, which make it difficult for even savvy Internet users to guess in advance which sites are likely to contain inappropriate language or information. 

The many ways and opportunities to communicate across the Internet, combined with the Internet’s culture of sharing and its built-in cloak of (perceived) anonymity, often lead people to write things on-line they would never say in person.

But the possibility of transgressing the laws regarding defamatory speech goes beyond merely writing negatively about someone in a place where others may read what one has written.

For example, posting pictures of oneself and others on a social networking site could possibly constitute r’khilut (gossip) if the pictures imply something negative about one of the individuals in the picture.

So too could the conspicuous absence of a perceived intimate from one’s list of social networking “friends” be considered avak l’shon ha-ra (something like lashon hara), since it might give rise to negative comments about the excluded individual.

Perhaps the most dangerous aspect of the Internet in the context of the prohibition of Leviticus 19:16 is the large number of people with whom one can communicate instantly and the often enduring nature of those communications.

An email containing r’khilut, for example, can be forwarded to countless people in an instant.

A comment containing l’shon ha-ra posted on-line can easily be copied and re-posted in any number of online forums where it might remain long after the original post has been deleted.

The potential for harm from the improper use of speech has never been greater.

Nor has it ever been easier to transgress these prohibitions.

Consequently, there has never been a time in which there was a greater need for each of us to develop a nuanced understanding of the myriad ways in which one does and does not transgress the prohibitions of Leviticus 19:16.

Until then, we would do well to live by the dictum of Rabbi Yossi, who was so zealous in terms of the words he chose to speak aloud that he could say, “In all my days, I never once had to look behind me after I spoke” (BT Arakhin 15b).

Adapted with permission from The Observant Life.

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  • The Observant Life (Book)

    The Observant Life: The Wisdom of Conservative Judaism for Contemporary Jews distills a century of thoughtful inquiry into the most profound of all Jewish questions: how to suffuse life with timeless values, how to remain loyal to the covenant that binds the Jewish people and the God of Israel, and how to embrace the law while retaining an abiding sense of fidelity to one’s own moral path in life. Written in a multiplicity of voices inspired by a common vision, the authors of The Observant Life explain what it means in the ultimate sense to live a Jewish life, and to live it honestly, morally, and purposefully. The work is a comprehensive guide to life in the 21st Century. Chapters on Jewish rituals including prayer, holiday, life cycle events and Jewish ethics such as citizenship, slander, taxes, wills, the courts, the work place and so much more.

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Author

  • The Observant Life (Book)

    The Observant Life: The Wisdom of Conservative Judaism for Contemporary Jews distills a century of thoughtful inquiry into the most profound of all Jewish questions: how to suffuse life with timeless values, how to remain loyal to the covenant that binds the Jewish people and the God of Israel, and how to embrace the law while retaining an abiding sense of fidelity to one’s own moral path in life. Written in a multiplicity of voices inspired by a common vision, the authors of The Observant Life explain what it means in the ultimate sense to live a Jewish life, and to live it honestly, morally, and purposefully. The work is a comprehensive guide to life in the 21st Century. Chapters on Jewish rituals including prayer, holiday, life cycle events and Jewish ethics such as citizenship, slander, taxes, wills, the courts, the work place and so much more.

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