We have been learning about kaballas loshon hora, the prohibition against believing loshon hora which is related in one’s presence. The Chofetz Chaim states that this prohibition applies not only to a report of current improper behavior, but to any information which we are forbidden to repeat. For example, if we were to hear that the father of a respected community member had a controversial past, we would not be permitted to believe it. We are also forbidden to believe a negative assessment of someone’s intelligence or physical abilities.
The Chofetz Chaim returns to the subject of listening to negative information l’toeles, for a constructive purpose. If someone is considering taking a partner into his business and then receives derogatory information concerning him, he is permitted to suspect that the information is true and to act on that suspicion. However, he is not permitted to believe it (without further investigation) or to take aggressive action against the person in question. Similarly, if one hears that a storekeeper cheats people, he can protect himself, but he may not attempt to harm the person’s reputation based on this information.
(Whether he can warn others is a complex issue which needs additional study. For further details see Sefer Chofetz Chaim, hilchos rechilus, klal tes.)
Furthermore, he must act toward the person with the same friendliness and kindness that he showed before hearing the report.
To take action upon hearing information but not to believe it may seem a very difficult challenge. However, as the Chofetz Chaim himself is reported to have said, “If it were impossible to keep the laws of loshon hora, Hashem would never have written them in His Torah.” We are, in fact, quite capable of acting based on mere suspicion or remote possibility. We engage in such action every time we enter a car and buckle the seat belt. The chances of a crash or even a short stop are remote, yet we safeguard ourselves.
In a similar way, when hearing loshon hora which may affect us if proven true, we must train ourselves to believe that in all probability the information is false. Nevertheless, we “buckle up for safety,” and take all necessary precautions.