Monday, December 04, 2006

is a book review a violation of lashon hara?

My wife sometimes writes book reviews on her blog as well as on the jblogbookmom’s blog and a recent e-mail she received gave rise to some halachic consideration. After offering some critical comments about a new book, the author e-mailed back that offering such negative comments violates hilchos lashon hara and may cause a loss to the person’s parnasa. Additionally, in this case the proceeds of the book are directed to tzedaka, so by causing any diminution of the book’s sales the tzedaka indirectly suffers. There were other comments in the e-mail explaining the reason for the author’s umbrage, e.g. the author claims the book was written for altruistic reasons – as far as I can tell, altruistic intentions are not a substitute for actual writing skills, so I'm not sure what the point there was. But the halachic question is at least interesting – is a religious author or artist protected from receiving a critical reviews of his/her work because of the laws of lashon hara? I find this idea hard to swallow. By the author’s reasoning there is no place in the Jewish world for restaurant reviews (who would eat at a place where the food is bad?), reviews of cars, clothes, travel, etc. (who would buy inferior products?), or any discussion of whether a product has merit because if the answer is negative, the producer inevitably suffers a loss of business. Never mind the fact that such a loss may be deserved or that the consumer bears the brunt of supporting what may be inferior goods or services that he/she would never have purchased had he/she known better. I think what the author misses is that the author or producer’s gain has to be balanced against the to’eles of the public being made aware of the quality of a work so they may make an informed decision as to whether to invest time and money in it. And while to a certain degree reviews are a matter of subjective taste, a reviewer should be able to defend his/her arguments for or against a work with examples, analysis, etc. There is a big difference between a statement of opinion with no justification and the type of critical review one might read in the NY Times or London Review of Books (and I guess I take for granted that my wife’s writing is closer to the latter than the former!) Secondly, it seems to me that anyone who makes a statement in the public arena through a work of art, a book, or some other medium implicitly surrenders his/her right to immunity from reasonable criticism. That is part and parcel of exposing one’s opinion to the world, and I think it inherent in the gemara’s principle of “chvrach chavra is leih”. Lastly, the loss of tzedaka funds is nothing more than a red herring – no one purchases a book simply because the author has pledged proceeds to tzedaka, and no impediment to buying the book stops someone from writing a check to the tzedaka if they wish to support it. Is a book store obligated to carry the book in question simply because not doing so restricts the possibility of funds going to a tzedaka? So much for my rough thoughts on the matter – I wonder if anyone has written up something more formal on the subject?

16 comments:

  1. Chaim,

    Rabbi Yirmiyahu Kaganoff had a discussion on this in one of the Jewish newspapers. You can e-mail Jack Blak for more details, as we discussed some of the article by e-mail.

    I touched on the topic here from a mussar perspective(see link and comments):

    http://bhorowitz.blogspot.com/2006/10/how-to-review-book.html

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  2. In Emes L'Yaakov on Shulchan Aruch, toward the end of the Choshem Mishpat section, Rav Yaakov Kamenetzky is quoted as unequivocally allowing negative reviews of a book.

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  3. And, hey, when are we getting another post from you on Mishmar? Next Bircas HaChamah? (That's 5769) Next Yovel? Bias Goel Tzedek? Techiyas HaMeisim? When we're detached Neshamos flying in cyberspace?

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  4. I second Bari's request.

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  5. Bari and Baruch, since you put me on the spot I have to admit to disagreeing with many postings of late of Mishmar, so k'shem she'kibalti schar al hadersiah kein akabeil schar al haperisha.
    Anyway, re: reviews, I am looking for a more complete discussion with mareh mekomos (i.e. to'eles of the consumer is a broad parameter that I think needs to be defined better, but I am too lazy to go back to the mekoros and am hoping someone else has already written something).

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  6. Chaim,

    Maybe we should continue this discussion by e-mail.

    You should note that I disagree with some posts, and I post my views in comments, or my own posts. I take "cacaphonous and composite" as a license to state my opinions(though the banner changed).

    I hope I *will* be mekabel schar on drishah!

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  7. yehuda1:13 PM

    The Chofetz Chaim paskens that one may not say on someones drosho 'ain bo mamesh'.ONE of the reasons he gives is because noone can speak in a manner that everyone likes so your negitive comments cause him an undue loss{as it will predijudice others}.He also paskens that one may not make negitive comments about a store to people who aren't looking to buy there.Even if they are intending to if the storeowner isn't being oiver on (e.g.)onah its not so simple to tell someone as unsolicited advice not to buy there.(sorry I don't remember the exact maroh mokomos; I will provide them on request)The above should also apply to a public review.

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  8. Yehuda, by that line of reasoning providing any negative info from the people asking for the sake of the shidduch should also be assur. What could be more damaging than nixing their chance with a person they wish to possibly marry? Yet people argue that this is a legitamete toeles and so you can dig until you hit dirt, er, I mean pay dirt. Perhaps they would argue that by entering into the shidduch system, the person is giving implicit consent to conduct a backgroudn check. In the workplace you would have to officially sign something to that effect. So how much more so is someone who publishes writing/music whatever, removing the safeguard of confidentiality or the "don't say anything if it is not nice" precept! They cannot claim confidentiality because their work is public. This is not the same as your giving me a manuscript to look over in confidence, then my comments should only be to you. But you went ahead and published it, it is open to anyone to say they like it or not. By your logic, one could only give a positive review, which would render all reviews meaningless.
    To take it a step further into the absurd, by your logic, how could I ever give a student a failing grade if it could cause him/her to lose out on getting into a graduate program or the job s/he wanted? Is that not damaging to reputation and parnasa? You have to be able to allow assessment of the work as separate from the person. Otherwise, we would live in a world where we erase all distinictions of true accomplishments from miserable failures or even mediocore efforts. For after all, we wouldn't want the one who tried but failed to feel bad or lose some of his reputable standing. {I believe that is the argument made by people who do not wish to bring instances of molestation and such to light}

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  9. yehuda3:30 PM

    Ariella,As you note by a shiduch both sides agree to a backround check.Ditto by a prospective job applicant.Although you may give a student a mark they deserve(a prominent rov told me that it is osser to mark negitivly on a curve if the students weren't informed before enrolling in the course)you may not give over that mark to anyone other then someone who it is relitive to know.The reason for the above is because you are giving real information to intrested parties.A public review is possibly giving subjective information to unfairly influenced parties.
    In the case of molestation or any other case that a person may be an innocent victim(e.g. seeing someone enter the store of a dishonest owner)one is REQUIRED to notify the potential victim due to 'Al taamod al dam rayach'.However there are various conditions that apply to the manner it may be told.(e.g.if its not first hand info one must say so,ones intent must be for the sake of the victim,if there is a manner to save that and other victims without telling one must avail themself of it.

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  10. >>>A public review is possibly giving subjective information to unfairly influenced parties

    The interested parties are consumers who are going to invest their time/money in purchasing something - analagous to the secular concept of "public interest" in libel law. The to'eles is to protect them from bad merchandise. The reviewer is a professional who has expertise in evaluating works of a similar nature and is not engaged in subjective "bashing". And the publication of a work in public implicitely opens the door to public criticism in a way that private confidential information like grades does not. Yehudah, I don't see how you have addressed any of these factors. Most importantly, I think you miss the point that reviews are more than a subjective expression of a person's likes/dislikes. Your opinion of a product is not the same as a review in Consumer Reports, and the fact that you have an opinion about art, music, or books that you like to share with friends won't get you a job as a critic for the NY Times.

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  11. yehuda7:26 PM

    Chaim,If readership of the review was limited to people who want to find out about the book before purchasing I would agree with you.If however all sorts of people who might of bought and enjoyed the book without caring to do prior research on it will read the review and not buy it then it might be a problem.These are my last comments on this topic.

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  12. If however all sorts of people who might of bought and enjoyed the book without caring to do prior research on it will read the review and not buy it then it might be a problem.
    You mean not a problem for the author of unworthy works. It is a problem for consumers who waste their money on something not worthwhile. If the consumers wish to obstinately keep themselves in a state of ignorance by ignoring the information that is available to them, that is, of course, their prerogative. But why should the reviewer be silenced then? Just let the consumers spend their money in ignorant bliss, while those who care to plan their purchases make use of the benefit of someone else's work on their behalf. Just as the person forced, so to speak, to allow info about him/herslef to be revealed, the person who puts his/her works in the public field relinquishes the right to privacy or silence on flaws in the work itself. That is not to say that people can start making ad hominem attacks. But it is patently absurd to say that something put before the public must not be critiqued except in postivie terms.

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  13. It seems to me that the foundation for Torah scholarship rests on the ability to debate, which means there will be criticism.

    Ariella's review (which was only of the title, I believe) did not constitute lashon hara I believe. And the "tzedakah" argument was just a red herring. Like you said, a person can just write a check.

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  14. Anonymous6:54 PM

    I enjoy reading your blog, but I have one request - could you use paragraphs? On posts of this length, it is very difficult to read with the current formatting.

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