The Case – How Embarrassing!!

Rabbi Max Sutton, rosh bet din aram soba, Jerusalem, israel

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.


The Wig Party

Sara ordered a custom-made wig from Yocheved, a local sheitel macher, at the whopping price of $3,500. Upon payment Sara brought her new wig home, only to hear comments from her family members that the wig was clearly not worth the price. Sara ignored the ongoing comments for a while, but when her mother-in-law expressed her disappointment with the wig’s quality, Sara called Yocheved and demanded a refund. Since Sara has been a regular customer for years, Yocheved agreed to take the wig back and make the necessary changes to improve its quality. Yocheved suggested to Sara during a phone conversation that if Sara was not satisfied with the wig after repairs, she would consider reimbursing her with a thousand dollars. Sara replied that she felt that a thousand-dollar refund is the least Yocheved should do. Sara sent the wig back to the store with Debbie, her neighbor, who was going there anyhow. Debbie did some shopping on the way and negligently lost the wig in a department store. Admitting to her negligence, Debbie was willing to pay $2,500 for the loss of the wig. Debbie explained that Sara herself acknowledges that the wig is worth only $2,500. Furthermore, Debbie claimed that Yocheved already consented to paying Sara the additional thousand dollars. On the other hand, Yocheved claimed that she is by no means willing to participate in the loss since she intended all along to improve the wig’s quality and not reimburse Sara a thousand dollars.

The three appeared in our Bet Din to resolve the dispute.

How should the Bet Din rule and why?