If you have ever been present while a group of people discuss someone in depth, you have probably observed the great human impulse toward amateur psychoanalysis. Such discussions usually include not only the subject’s faults and problems, but also an extended analysis of his parents and friends and how they impacted on his personality. When the group is intent on guaranteeing that their “armchair analysis” is complete, they make sure to carefully analyze every member of the subject’s immediate family.
To spare every Jew the “benefit” of such unsolicited analysis, the Torah forbids us to discuss past faults or transgressions of a person or his family.
Generally, there are two variations of this kind of loshon hora. One is clearly derogatory:
“Did you know her mother? I knew her mother. If you knew her mother then you would understand everything about her!”
The other example is what’s commonly called “a backhanded compliment:”
“Look how far she’s come in straightening out her life!”
Even if the person’s less-than-admirable past is widely known, it is forbidden to allude to it if it is degrading to the person. Emphasizing that the person has come “a long way” in his mitzvah observance does not make this permissible, nor does the fact that your intention is to compliment him.
In forthcoming segments, we will discuss what to do when shidduch (suggested marriage match) information is needed. Generally speaking, however, negative information about parents or family should not be reported unless it could have a direct bearing on the party’s marriage (such as health or emotional stability).
The Torah judges statements concerning one’s past according to the impact they will have upon the listener. In the above cases, past information will cause people to lower their opinion of the subject. Often, this is all that is needed to tip the balance against a prospective shidduch or job application. In the Torah’s view, this would be unfortunate and unnecessary. Just as Hashem judges each of us according to our present level, and He does not hold us accountable for our ancestors’ or our own past misdeeds (assuming we have repented), so too, are we expected to evaluate our fellow Jew according to his present level.