The famed R’ Yisrael Salanter once said that the “eleventh commandment” is “Don’t be a fool,” which means that the Torah obligates us to use our intelligence and life experience to navigate our lives. So, when someone known to be dishonest attempts to swindle your life’s savings, you are under no obligation to judge him favorably and give him the benefit of the doubt.
The Chofetz Chaim tells us that if someone is a confirmed rasha (wicked person), meaning that he openly and consistently transgresses Torah prohibitions, then one is allowed to accept loshon hora about him. The exact guidelines for classifying someone as a rasha are complex and are beyond the scope of this work. However, one point which has been mentioned earlier bears repeating. Nowadays, most non-observant Jews are people who have never been introduced to the beauty and truth of Torah Judaism. Rambam likens such a person to a “tinok shenishba,” a child who was captured by gentiles and who grew up ignorant of his heritage. Such a person is surely no rasha; we should treat him with love and compassion and surely we should not speak badly of him.
The Chofetz Chaim then discusses the case of a person who recounts a story which reflects poorly on himself and on someone else as well. For example, you are at your twenty-fifth high school reunion and a former classmate is amusing everyone with a story about the time he and a friend — who could not attend the reunion — put maple syrup on the teacher’s chair. While the speaker may find the story funny, his friend might not want to be remembered for such things. And most people would not want their children to discover such stories about them.
The halachah prohibits the listeners from accepting the loshon hora about the second person even though the speaker is incriminating himself as well. At first glance, this halachah seems difficult to observe. How am I to take a story which I heard firsthand and split it into two, believing it only regarding the speaker? The key here is to see halachah as a reality. As the Chofetz Chaim states, I cannot believe the story as far as it concerns the second person, because a Jew has a chezkas kashrus, a presumed status of one who is faithful to Torah and mitzvos — including the Torah’s requirements regarding proper behavior. Therefore, I have no right to believe that the second person has acted improperly unless I know this information firsthand.
A story about the great Torah leader Rabbi Moshe Feinstein bears mentioning. Halachah prohibits a person from walking in front of someone who is praying Shemoneh Esrei. Once, R’ Moshe was on his way to an important meeting when he noticed someone near the doorway praying Shemoneh Esrei. He stopped in his tracks and would go no further. “There is a wall blocking my path,” R’ Moshe explained. The wall, of course, was the strength of the halachah which prohibited him from walking any further. By seeing halachah as a powerful reality, following its requirements becomes relatively easy.