Ethics Mark Silk: Spiritual Politics Opinion

What’s wrong with a Jewish law judge’s sock puppetry?

Shulchan AruchTwenty years ago, I paid a visit to Prof. Michael Broyde in his Emory University Law School office, to ask him to help me understand the Jewish legal doctrine of lashon hara–telling bad things about someone. I was interested in the relationship between this proscribed behavior and the practice of journalism. He told me that, unlike defamation in U.S. law, lashon hara is considered wrong even if the bad thing is true.

A couple of days ago, Broyde found himself on the wrong end of such journalistic lashon hara. In a punctilious piece of investigative reporting, the Jewish Channel’s Steven I. Weiss made out a case that Broyde had invented an elderly rabbi called Hershel Goldwasser to engage in some classic online sock puppetry.

Specifically, Weiss alleged that Broyde used the Goldwasser character to 1) praise himself to other scholars; 2) attack rabbinic authorities he disagreed with–including Atlanta’s most respected orthodox rabbi; and 3) gain access to a listserv of his rabbinic rivals that he wouldn’t have had access to under his own name. In his correspondence to scholarly journals, “Goldwasser” said that Broyde had been a “one-in-[a]-million” student of his in high school and that because of the relationship Broyde sent him drafts of his brilliant articles to review — thereby explaining his frequent reference to them.

Not only could Weiss find no independent confirmation of Goldwasser’s existence but he ascertained that his communications came from the same Comcast and Emory IP addresses that Broyde uses. At first, when confronted with the evidence,  Broyde denied inventing Goldwasser. (“Not my character…He’s a rebbe [teacher] of mine from many years ago who’s deceased [and] made aliyah [moved to Israel] ten years ago, or something like that, maybe more, I don’t remember.”) But shortly after Weiss’ story appeared, he admitted responsibility in an email of apology to one of the rabbis on the invaded listserv.

About twenty years ago, I and a friend began jointly occasionally using a pseudonym to write about matters of halacha [Jewish law] and Jewish public policy. The views expressed were not reflective of an overall joint ideology, but we wished to write together on some matters to see if we could form a common opinion, albeit one not each of us agreed with completely.

He did not supply the name of the alleged co-conspirator.

Broyde is not a minor figure in the wider Jewish world. He sits as a judge on the most important Jewish law court in America and this year was reportedly a serious contender to succeed Jonathan Sacks as chief rabbi of England. Sure, he’s embarrassed himself, but in his world has he committed a crime?

From where I sit, his sock puppetry qualifies as geneivat da’at — “theft of mind,” or deception. The standard examples of this proscribed behavior are related to business, such as misrepresenting the quality of goods one is selling to a customer. But it can also apply to less tangible interactions.

Thus, according to Rabbi Eliezer Melamed of the Har Bracha Yeshiva in Israel, “the prohibition against deception applies when one person, through action or speech, causes his fellow to receive a positive yet false impression about him.” That would seem to fit the Goldwasser encomia of Broyde to a T.

Brooklyn College professor Hershey M. Friedman writes, “The sages believed that there are seven types of thieves and, of these, the most egregious is the one who “steals the minds” of people (Tosefta Bava Kama 7:3).” I’d say that that one is also more egregious than the journalist who, conducting himself according to the norms his profession, engages in lashon hara.

Update: Broyde has been dismissed from his position on the law court, the American Beth Din, according to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. But he doesn’t think he’s done anything seriously wrong.


About the author

Mark Silk

Mark Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college's Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life. He is a Contributing Editor of the Religion News Service