100,000 STRONG:Unity, Joy, and Pride at the 13th Siyum HaShas

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HOW EMBARRASSING!!

By: Rabbi Max Sutton



THE CASE

Audrey sent her daughter to a local elementary school. Unhappy with her daughter’s progress throughout the school year, she wrote a brief text to many members of the board of directors of the school complaining that her daughter’s sudden regression is the result of her daughter’s terribly under-qualified teacher. After detailing the teacher’s shortcomings, she added a genuine request not to disclose her complaint or identity to the teacher. Audrey’s wrote that her reasoning for the confidentiality was because the teacher was clearly an unstable individual who is likely to avenge the complaint in a fierce and uncontrolled manner. Shortly thereafter, one of the board members, a friend of the teacher, showed the teacher Audrey’s nasty text message. The teacher was appalled by the audacity of the text and was mortified that her employer and other staff members might actually believe it. The teacher turned to our Bet Din and complained that the text was only written because Audrey’s son was going through a bitter divorce with her niece. The text message was not only false, it was deeply embarrassing. The teacher explained that she is in so much distress that she can barely show her face in school. Although she believes that because of her good reputation as a teacher the text will not cause her to lose her job, nevertheless, she is seeking financial compensation for the anguish of embarrassment and defamation of character. The teacher added that only via payment authorized by a Bet Din can her name and status be rightfully restored. Audrey defended that her complaint is truthful and unrelated to her son’s divorce, and thus, she is unwilling to compensate the teacher.

How should the Bet Din rule, in favor of Audrey or the teacher, and why?

TORAH LAW

According to the ruling of the Shulhan Aruch, by letter of the law one who humiliates another with words alone is not liable to provide monetary compensation to the victim. Nevertheless, a Bet Din will consider the mental anguish suffered by the victim and impose a mitigated payment on the offender. Early halachic authorities emphasize that verbally humiliating another with slander or the like is a severe crime and can result in penalty measures against the offender beyond mere monetary compensation. People of a community are to value the status of their membership by maintaining respect and good will for one another.

Leading halachic authorities debate whether mitigated payment is required in instances in which one knowingly caused humiliation to another with a constructive intent. A primary example of this is one who breaks an engagement to be married. Some authorities view the breaking of an engagement as a form of embarrassment that requires monetary compensation. Although the decision not to marry is clearly constructive, meaning it is not done in order to hurt the other party, nevertheless, one is consciously humiliating the other when cancelling an engagement. Many halachic authorities differ with this ruling, and exempt payment for this type of humiliation. According to this view, an offender is liable to provide compensation only when he deliberately embarrasses a victim. If, however, the intent is not to humiliate, but rather is of a constructive nature, no liability is incurred.

Generally, Sephardic congregations world-wide do not impose payment for the humiliation caused by a broken engagement. However, this practice of not requiring payment is strictly regarding the humiliation and mental anguish sustained. Other costs or financial losses are subject to adjudication, and payment may be required.

Interestingly, one halachic authority rules that if an offender sinfully exposed factual information that led to the humiliation of another, no monetary liability is incurred. However, even according to this opinion, the offender is required to provide evidence that his humiliating statement is indeed true. In the absence of clear evidence, he is responsible for damages. Some qualify this exemption, applying it only in instances in which it was productive to expose the derogatory information. However, most halachic authorities impose liability for publicizing derogatory, humiliating information about another, even if proven true.

 In instances in which the information is crucial to privately reveal to another in order to protect his welfare, a competent halachic authority should be consulted.

A Bet Din will analyze whether the intent of an offender was solely constructive, based on whether he or she acted excessively. Excessive behavior is sometimes a sign of an ulterior motive.

A Bet Din will seek to promote peace by arranging a settlement between the disputing litigants.

VERDICT

Unwarranted Behavior

Our Bet Din ruled in favor of the teacher and chastised Audrey for her excessive, unwarranted behavior. Standard procedure of a parent unsatisfied with their child’s progress is to first confront the teacher. If the matter is not rectified, the parent is to proceed to the teacher’s supervisor. If a solution is still not found, there is always the option of switching to an alternate class. Contacting board members with a complaint about a teacher is rash, and arouses suspicion of an ulterior motive. After questioning some of the board members that received Audrey’s text, it was apparent that they also found Audrey’s complaint suspicious. They added that they never followed up on the complaint, as it seemed odd that they were contacted instead of the principal. In short, the impression our Bet Din received was that Audrey embarrassed herself and did little or no damage to the teacher with the peculiar content of her text. Other than the one board member who wrongfully showed the teacher the text, none of them even recalled the name of the teacher mentioned in the text.  The teacher’s character was not defamed, and her job was not jeopardized.

Nevertheless, we instructed Audrey to write a formal apology to each member of the board of directors for her unusual behavior. and imposed on her the responsibility to appease the teacher with a token gift.