Check Your References

Baila should share negative information about Feivel – halacha demands it!

The Twist

Baila is married and is very involved in trying to help her sister, Orit, get there, too. Recently, she suggested to one of her husband’s friends, Feivel, that he date Orit. Feivel politely refused. Baila still thinks it is a good idea, and is hoping that Feivel will change his mind in the future. Baila is also a bit hurt that he said no.

In a strange sequence of events, this afternoon, Baila received a phone call from another woman. The speaker was interested in dating Feivel and called Baila to serve as a character reference for him. Baila has heard that an individual that is asked to be a reference regarding a shidduch (match) is halachically mandated to tell the full truth about the subject. Baila reasons that this rule applies to her discussing Feivel. She has noticed that he has many positive traits, as well as some slight negative traits. She believes that it is her religious duty to honestly share both.

She dials the number of that inquiring party and is eager to portray an accurate picture of Feivel. Her motivation is to keep the halacha properly and share what she knows about Feivel to the other party.

An Honest Bias

In my last post, we discussed that there are often multiple layers to truth – and often multiple truths. We might be in touch with a reason for us to do a specific action. Upon further contemplation, we could realize that there is another reason or several reasons that we are engaging in that specific conduct. It can be freeing, enriching, and sometimes frightening, to notice and become aware of truths that are deeper than the one that it is easy to initially observe.

Baila’s reporting is an example of the multifaceted nature of human behaviors and motivations. Her desire for honesty might partially stem from her desire to keep the religious requirement to be honest. Also, it might seem important for her to focus on the reality that that she is still interested in a creating a relationship between Feivel and Orit. In addition, it might be important for Baila to consider unspoken animosity she has toward Feivel. The more she considers the various reasons motives for her giving a report about Feivel’s positive and negative sides, the more she might be able to tailor what she says and not let it border on malevolent speech.

This observation is made by the Chafetz Chaim (Laws of Rechilus, Klal 9, elaborated on and elucidated by Rabbi Daniel Z. Feldman in False Facts and True Rumors, pp. 99 – 101). He codifies that one asked important and relevant information about his friend by someone interested in embarking in a partnership or relationship is not allowed to express bias toward the subject. Halacha requires that the reference is honest and tries to find and convey the truth. If he discusses negative aspects of the person out of a predisposition or external motivation, chances are that he will unwittingly exaggerate or emphasize certain undesirable points. In this scenario, Baila has to be exceedingly careful to distill the truth and remove preconceptions and biases (see ibid. pp. 114 – 116).

The Checking Account

Along similar lines, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (Ramchal, 1707 – 1746) in his definitive religioethical classic Mesilas Yesharim (The Path of the Upright, Chapter 3) advocates probing for a deeper awareness and understanding of one’s actions. Ramchal advocates introspection as a means of constantly assessing one’s bearing. He elaborates that introspection has two aspects. Yefashfesh b’maasav – one should check his actions, and yemashmesh b’maasav – he should finely evaluate his actions. The first step to effective introspection is to grossly observe which actions are good and which are bad. The next step is to discerningly analyze his actions. Even behaviors that appear valuable might have several layers of motivation, some of which are negative. He recommends deeper analysis and exploration in order to find and terminate behaviors that are generally correct, but have aspects that are improper.


It is sometimes easier and more comfortable to attribute our actions to simple, superficial motivators. If we do so, we might be truthful, but we are not telling ourselves the whole truth. Is that true?

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