Q. I suspect that a member of my congregation, who is admired for his piety and charity, also encourages fraud. One neighbor told me outright that this man advised him how to defraud the government. Should I publicize his shameful acts?
A. Certainly we should disapprove of people engaging in acts of fraud. However, we need to be careful that our zeal for good business ethics doesn’t lead us to engage in unethical behavior ourselves. One cornerstone of ethical behavior is not to give credence to slanderous accusations — even if the accuser includes himself in the indictment. (Like your case, when your neighbor admits that he also engages in deceit.) We are obligated to judge our fellow man favorably (Leviticus 19:15); therefore, you should not give credence to your neighbor’s report.
Even if you were completely sure that the accusations were correct, that wouldn’t justify publicizing them. In Jewish tradition, shaming people who misbehave is a last resort, not a first line of action. Indeed, the Torah is constantly careful to preserve the dignity even of convicted criminals. (See Deuteronomy 25:3 and 21:23.)
The best policy is to discuss the matter directly with the man you suspect. This fulfills the Torah mandate of gentle reproof (Leviticus 19:17). Mention that you have heard he recommends a certain course of action; explain in a patient and non-threatening way why you think these acts are unethical and might lead to legal penalties and possible community disgrace. Be prepared to listen with an open mind to any denials or explanations he may provide for his behavior. Certainly you should not give the impression that you are thinking of turning him in!
The key to improving ethical behavior in the community is education — not confrontation. Start a series of classes on business ethics; if educated businesspeople are able to deliver some of the lectures this will both increase their involvement and provide positive role models. You may find to your surprise that the man you suspect of wrongdoing will himself end up being an active participant in these classes!
Past columns of the Jewish Ethicist, which are found in our archive can serve as an excellent basis for local classes. Each column begins with a true-life case study, and each is followed by a list of sources that can serve as basic texts for discussion. If people want to locate additional sources for this purpose, I will try to provide them.
SOURCES: Chafetz Chaim I 1:9; Shulchan Arukh Yoreh Deah 334:1 and Shach commentary, and 334:43-15; Shulchan Arukh Choshen Mishpat 388:9.