A Wealth Of Suspicion

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Halachic Musings

By Rabbi Yair Hoffman

Mr. Goldberg had been volunteering at the yeshiva and had agreed to serve on the board. But then his seemingly middle-class lifestyle suddenly underwent a bit of a change. The old Taurus was turned in for a late-model Beemer. A dormer was added to the house, and the vacations became more and more frequent. There is also no apparent explanation for Mr. Goldberg’s newfound wealth.

Rumors began to spread.

“Has Mr. Goldberg been siphoning money from the yeshiva?”

“Perish the thought!”

“Should he be turned over to the police for an investigation?”

“What? Chas v’shalom. How dare you impugn the reputation of a good man!”

On the one hand, there are no witnesses to anything unseemly. So perhaps the police should not be called in. Indeed, the very fact that Mr. Goldberg would be investigated would certainly adversely affect his business.

On the other hand, there is a responsibility to the yeshiva. The rebbeim and teachers need to be paid, and at this point they are behind. Is it permitted, as a protective measure, to depose Mr. Goldberg from his position on the yeshiva’s board?

The Sources

The Gemara in Gittin (52b) discusses the concept of an apotropos—a guardian entrusted with looking after the possessions of orphans until they become of age. It discusses the particular case of Amram Tzivah. The relatives of one of the orphans came before Rabbi Nachman and said, “He is clothing himself and covering himself from the possessions of orphans!”

Rav Nachman’s first response was that he may be entitled to do so because it is ultimately in the orphan’s best financial interests.

They further claimed that he was eating the food of the orphans as well. Rabbi Nachman responded that we must assume that he ran into some financial find.

Finally, when they claimed that he was neglecting the land of the orphans, Rabbi Nachman responded that they needed to obtain witnesses to that effect in order to depose him.

Favorable Judgments

Rav Yitzchok Zilberstein in his Chashukei Chemed on Tractate Gittin discusses a similar situation about a shul board member. He concludes that we see from here that we are to judge people favorably and we assume that his newfound spending habits are due to some new financial windfall he came into rather than assume any theft on his part.

The Meiri in Tractate Shabbos 127b writes, however, that if the matter clearly indicates that the person is at fault, then the matter should be investigated. This is also the view of Rabbeinu Bachya (Avos 1:6).

If we look at the Rambam in the laws of inheritance (10:7), he qualifies the Gemara as applying only when the father had appointed the apotropos. If, however, it was the beis din that did so, then he would be dismissed. The Rashba argues on this point and states that it would apply equally to a case where the beis din appoints him. The Rambam’s rationale ostensibly would be that since the father had trusted him, we cannot oust him just because we deem it likely that there may be theft there. If, however, it was the beis din that appointed him, then our fiduciary obligation to the orphans means that we must act upon it.

Categories Of Suspects

From a halachic standpoint (see the Chofetz Chaim’s Be’er Mayim Chaim 3:10 and Shaarei Teshuvah 3:218), the issue of judging people favorably seems to be dependent upon whether the person fits into one of three categories: perception of yiras Shamayim, beinoni, or rasha. For a beinoni, one may be suspicious, but it is a worthy act not to suspect him.

The fact that the Shulchan Aruch (CM 290:4) cites the view of Rav Nachman in the laws of inheritance indicates that the idea of judging favorably is also a practical halachic issue and not merely a method of thinking.

The Rema in 53:25 is further cited by Rav Yitzchok Zilberstein. The Rema is discussing rumors of inappropriate behavior on the part of a chazzan where he either violated a prohibition of mesirah or was caught engaging in certain improper behaviors. The Rema rules that in such circumstances we do not depose the chazzan unless there are witnesses. The Mishnah Berurah, citing the Magen Avraham, points out that if the rumors do not stop, the matter should be taken under examination.

Acting On Rumors

The Biur Halachah in 53:25 provides us with interesting parameters for this somewhat bizarre notion of acting upon rumors. He essentially gives us three criteria:

  • The rumors must persist in the town for some 36 hours;
  • He cannot have had any previously identifiable enemies who might have produced the rumor (see Yevamos 25a);
  • Many must agree and ostensibly believe the rumors. There is also the requirement that it be ascertained that the rumors were not started by one sole individual.

Under such circumstances, the Biur Halachah would permit removing the chazzan from his station. Clearly, this is as a protective measure rather than as a form of judgment. The judging can only be done within the framework of a beis din.

The Biur Halachah also questions how it could at all be possible that we would cause a loss of revenue to the chazzan solely based on the idea of rumors. He writes that even if there is an umdanah d’muchach—overwhelming circumstantial evidence—we cannot cause the person a monetary loss (see Shulchan Aruch CM 408) and certainly if it is just unceasing rumors. He answers that the rationale permitting it is that those who appointed him would not have initially wanted someone about whom such rumors could be spread.

Conclusions

There are no simple solutions to these questions, particularly when people’s lives and reputations are at stake. We have obligations both to the person under question who has a track record of honesty, as well as to the institution involved. We dare not sully the reputation of an upstanding member of the community by mere rumor or suspicion. On the other hand, many communities have trusted “upstanding members of the community” and have lost all they own by investing with that person. Perhaps we should be more attuned to the views of the Meiri and the Rambam. On the other hand, if it would directly cause the individual a loss of money, then the Biur Halachah concludes that one may not do so based upon rumors.

Whenever these questions come up, they should be directed to a leading posek before anyone acts upon suspicions and rumors that will hurt a person’s business or reputation.

The author can be reached at Yairhoffman2@gmail.com.

 

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