One of the factors which makes loshon hora such a serious sin is that it involves the interaction of two people — the speaker and the listener. Until now, the Chofetz Chaim has been dealing with the speaker’s role. In this section, he puts the listener under halachic examination, and states: It is forbidden to believe loshon hora. One who does so has transgressed a Torah prohibition (see Shemos 23:1 with Rashi). The Chofetz Chaim quotes the teaching that the punishment for accepting loshon hora is greater than the punishment for speaking loshon hora.
The Chofetz Chaim further states that listening to loshon hora is forbidden even if the listener does not intend to accept the information. However, he notes, there is a difference between accepting loshon hora and listening with the intention of not believing what one is about to hear. And with this, we enter the complex issue of toeles, constructive purpose. The Chofetz Chaim examines two common areas in which derogatory information might be required for a constructive purpose—the areas of business decisions and shidduchim (prospective marriage matches). If, for example, one is considering a job offer, a potential business partnership, or a suggested shidduch, he is permitted to listen to relevant negative information. His purpose in such cases is not gossipmongering, but self-protection. However, he must decide in his mind that while he may use negative information to protect himself, he will not accept it as fact.
The Chofetz Chaim is discussing a case where the speaker initiated the conversation. The listener may “tune in” to the conversation l’toeles if either:
— the speaker has already made it clear that he is relating the information l’toeles; or
— The listener arrives when the speaker has already begun relating the information to someone else. This way, the listener is not guilty of causing someone to sin.
The allowance for listening for constructive purposes extends even further, the Chofetz Chaim says. One may listen to important information that applies to his friend to prevent the friend from falling into a bad situation. The listener should first check the accuracy of the information before passing it on to the relevant party. One can also listen to a report that his friend has committed a transgression, if he feels that he is in a position to speak to the person and help him mend his ways.
As mentioned, even when we are allowed to listen to negative information, we are not permitted to accept it as fact without further investigation. This seems to be a difficult demand. If I hear something about someone, and I act upon it, how can I not accept it as fact?
In reality, we do have a natural capacity to reject plausible information as false, and we exercise this capacity in many situations. For instance, imagine if you were to hear a terrible piece of loshon hora about your brother. The inner workings of your mind would immediately label this information as false. “I know my brother, and he wouldn’t have done something like that!” you would tell yourself. Nevertheless, because you care about your brother, you would probably confront him privately and say, “I cannot imagine that it is true, but I heard that...” The Torah requires us to view every Jew as a brother or sister, and extend our natural protective instincts to him or her as well.