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Jewish Sources For Journalistic Ethics

By Yosef I. Abramowitz, copyright 1990 by Yosef Abramowitz

"The newspaper that is true to its highest mission will concern itself with the things that ought to happen tomorrow, or the next month, or the next year, and will seek to make what ought be come to pass...the highest mission of the press is to render public service." Joseph Pulitzer, Publisher, Founder, Columbia School of Journalism

Thousands of years before the invention of the first printing press, Judaism codified within its laws, traditions, governance and values the essential characteristics of classic journalism.

Joseph Pulitzer's description of the role of the newspaper within society was preceded by a rich and institutionalized tradition of moral prophesy in ancient Israel. As early as Deuteronomy, the fifth book of Moses, G-d mandates in the desert the structure of Israelite society once the Hebrews enter the Promised Land. "You shall then set a king over yourself whom G-d will choose," (Deut. 17:15), representing the Executive branch of government. "Judges and law enforcing officials shall you appoint for yourself in all your gates," (Deut. 16:18), representing local judiciaries. Judicial appeals were made to the Levites, the priests, who served as a higher court (Deut. 17:9).

The court, later referred to as the Sanhedrin, was divided into two sections: The Small Sanhedrin with twenty three judges and the Grand Sanhedrin with seventy one judges. The Grand Sanhedrin had considerable powers; "its decisions had the force of law; it ratified the appointments of high priest and king; and its permission was required if the court's rulings were frequently innovative, it was in effect also a limited legislative body." (The Torah, A Modern Commentary, page 1460). It has been compared by some to the U.S. Senate in function.

While a system of governance was mandated, G-d also institutionalized another voice within the society. "I will raise up for them a prophet from among their own brethren, and I will put My words into his mouth, so that he may speak to them everything that I will command him." (Deut. 18:18) While representing an independent moral voice, the Prophet was also G-d's instrument for anointing a new king. After the anointing, however, the prophet had no formal powers beyond the moral voice to which people, including the king, were expected to hearken.

And, indeed, the first two kings of the Hebrews, Saul and David, were confronted over the moral inequities of their regimes and leadership by the prophets Samuel and Natan.

Melvin Mencher, in News Reporting and Writing, writes that "morality is basic to the theory and practice of journalism. The free press justifies its existence in terms of moral imperatives..." (page 600)

"Justice, justice shalt thou pursue" (Deut. 16:20) commanded G-d of the Israelites, and Isaiah was one of the most eloquent of prophets to fulfill his mandate as a voice for justice. Isaiah was commanded to "Cry aloud, spare not; Lift up your voice like a trumpet." (Isaiah 58:1) He did, and called on the Children of Israel to "Learn to do well -- seek justice, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow." (Isaiah 1:17) In modern terms, Isaiah asked that the rights of the most vulnerable parts of society be vigorously protected.

Abraham Joshua Heschel, the 20th Century thinker, said of the prophets: "In a sense, the calling of the prophet may be described as that of an advocate or champion, speaking for those who are too weak to plead their own cause. Indeed, the major activity of the prophets was interference, demonstrating about wrongs inflicted on other people, meddling in affairs which were seemingly neither their concern nor their responsibility." As a quality newspaper would do, "prophets remind us of the moral state of the people: Few are guilty, but all are responsible." (The Wisdom of Heschel, by Ruth Marcus Goodhill, pages 296, 284).

There is also an inherent distrust of government by the prophets. "Be careful with the government authorities as they do not come close to a person but for their own need." (Avot 2:3) Furthermore, the prophet Samuel pleaded with the people not to call for a king. And Isaiah lamented "O, my people, your leaders mislead you, And confuse the course of your paths." (3:12)

The prophets were also the first to bring the written word to the people. "Write the vision; Make it plain upon tablets," commands the prophet Habakkuk (2:2). After the Babylonian exile, the prophets introduced public readings of the Five Books of Moses in Jerusalem thus bringing the written word from the elite of society to the masses. Also institutionalized within Judaism is the ceremony of Hakel, where the king appears before the entire people to read from the Bible. (It is interesting to point out that this practice has been reinstated since the establishment of the State of Israel. Israeli President Chaim Herzog, before a massive crowd at the Western Wall of the Second Temple, read from the Five Books three years ago in fulfillment of the commandment of bringing the written word to the people.)

After the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, Jewish life became radically transformed from a temple-centric cult into a community and lifestyle that had to adapt and survive outside of the Holy Land. The laws of this society, derived from the Bible, became codified in the Talmud around the year 400 CE.

The Talmud deals with virtually every issue within a society, including issues of speech. Here we find Jewish ethics to be less in harmony with current journalistic practice.

Immediately in the beginning of creation, the enormous power of speech is demonstrated. "And G-d said, Let there be light! And there was light" (Genesis 1:3), and, subsequently, G-d created the world by proclaiming each and every thing.

Recognizing the power of speech, G-d warns in the Book of Leviticus: "You shall not go about as a talebearer among your people." (19:16) Proverbs has nine major warnings about the power of speech. Among them: "Life and death are in the power of the tongue" (18:21), "The words of a talebearer are as wounds" (18:8), and "he that guards his mouth, guards his life; but he that opens his lips wide will have destruction." (13:3)

Based on the above and other citations, a wide body of law developed elevating the value of a reputation of an individual in society. It was prohibited to say, and later, print anything (often even true) which could damage the standing of the individual. The rationale was that if people were created in G-d's image, then they must be given respect. The exceptions, based on the Biblical phrase that "You shall not stand idly by the blood of your fellow" (Lev. 19:16), relate to warning the public in order to prevent more sins from being committed.

In general, Jewish law commands giving everyone the benefit of the doubt ("You shall judge your fellow favorably," Lev. 19:15). Therefore, Jewish law would prohibit the widespread journalistic practice of printing the names of people arrested prior to a guilty verdict in court. However, a strong case could be made that if potentially dangerous people were let out on bail, that the community should be publicly notified.

Even when public speech is sanctioned, it must be accurate. "Sages, be careful with your words... You may incur the penalty of exile" (Avot 1:11), which was the same penalty given for manslaughter. Maimonidies, the great 12th century Jewish thinker wrote, "Watch what you say in public. No expression should be ambiguous and admit several interpretations. Otherwise, if there be heretics in the audience, they will interpret your words in accordance with their own opinions, and the students, having heard it from them, may turn to heresy." (Insights: A Talmud Treasury, Rabbi Saul Weiss, page 145). In Deuteronomy, we are taught that "You shall investigate and inquire and interrogate thoroughly." (13:15)

Community, based on the foundation of strong family units, is the context for much of Jewish law relating to reputations of individuals. The value of community also creates a journalistic tension within the search for truth.

On the one hand, peace within the community (Shalom Bayit) is a strong value ("One must not perpetuate strife" Sanhedrin 110a;) On the other, Judaism is relentless in its pursuit of truth.

The search for truth is a major theological component of Judaism. "Upon three things the world rests, upon justice, upon truth, and upon peace," teaches the Jerusalem Talmud (Taanit 4:2). "And the three are one, for when justice is done, truth prevails and peace is established." Truth is also one of G-d's names, and "The seal of the Holy One, blessed be He, is Truth." (Shabbat 55a)

While truth must be vigorously pursued, there is one exception to the rule. In the interests of peace in a household or in a community (Shalom Bayit), the truth may be altered somewhat. (Rabbi R. Solomon Lurie [1510-1573], however, ruled that even for the purpose of Shalom Bayit, the altering of the truth must be infrequent.) While the modern journalist may worry about the negative repercussions of a sensitive revelation, it is likely such a story will end up being published.

Other Judaic ethics which relate to journalism include:

1) Attribution: "Whoever reports a saying in the name of its originator brings deliverance to the world." (Avot 6:6)

2) Altering quotes: "He who alters his speech is as though he had engaged in idolatry." (Sanhedrin 92a)

3) Op/Ed pages: "Whenever a dispute is for the Name of Heaven, it will ultimately endure." (Avot 5:20)

4) Sources: Two eyewitnesses are needed for the Sanhedrin to rule on legal matters, including declaring the new moon.

The advent of the modern press was not foreseen in traditional Jewish text, and so there are no specific ancient laws relating to the industry. Yet Judaism does have a rich moral tradition which upholds, supports and perhaps even inspires many of the ethical norms that exist today in modern journalism.

The prophet Hosea lamented 2,600 years ago that "My people are rejected for lack of knowledge." (4:6) Pulitzer's solution was to popularize the media and create a school of journalism so "That the People Shall Know."