Chaim Ingram

Acute Angles. A Moral Dilemma – Thinking Outside The Box

Dear Rabbi. I am a professional caseworker for a Jewish welfare organization. My best friend’s daughter is seriously dating a young man who has been a client of mine. There are things that I feel I ought to reveal to her or her parents about his history of mental instability of which I am almost sure they are unaware. However, in doing so, I would be breaking professional confidentiality which is almost unthinkable. Am I permitted, or is it my duty even, to say anything to her or to her parents whom I care a lot about? If you publish this, please just refer to me as Jay. Thank you.

Dear Jay,

Your dilemma is indeed a heart-wrenching one. Is your first loyalty to your best friend’s daughter who may be getting herself into a relationship for which she has not been prepared, or is it to your client?

R’ Yisrael Meir Kagan, the Chafets Chaim (1838-1933) was famous for publicizing the evils of lashon ha-ra (negative talk about people) and the damage it can cause. Yet it was he who also stressed that there is another equally important mitsva, namely lo ta’amod al dam re’eicha, “do not stand idly by the blood of your fellow”, i.e. don’t be silent when you can prevent your fellow from being hurt. Whether it is a friend who is about to enter a business venture with an individual of questionable honesty or about to “tie the knot” with someone you know is unstable, you have a duty to warn your friend (without exaggerating the problem of course).

On the other hand, in your role as a caseworker, you have the absolute trust of your clients that any thing they reveal to you or anything you discover about them is not to travel beyond the four walls of your private consultation sessions. To reveal what you know would be a betrayal of that confidence.

A very similar question to yours was once put to the late Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach (1931-2008). In answering, he thought – as does a great rabbi – outside the box, both metaphorically and literally!

His answer, in a nutshell, was: your loyalty is both to your friend and your client!  But that does not solve the issue. And therefore we have to ask another question: What are the ramifications of your betrayal of a professional confidence beyond the breach of trust to your client? The answer: enormous! That betrayal will place not only your reputation but the reputation of the welfare organization employing you at risk. No-one would trust the organization any longer. Maybe people would lose confidence in the Jewish welfare system as a whole. The result would be that the physical, mental and emotional health of many people would be jeopardized.

So we have a case of  potential damage to an individual versus likely adverse impact upon the many. And the wellbeing of the many, impacting a community, takes precedence.

This was the masterly psak of Rav Auerbach. He thought outside the dalet amot, four cubits, symbolizing the private space or ‘ box’ of an individual, and prioritized the needs of the community.

Each chapter of Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) is prefaced in the siddur with the statement: “All Israel has a share in the World to Come – as it is stated (Isaiah 60:21) v’ameich kulam tsaddikim, ‘Your people are all righteous’”. How does the prophet Isaiah, the great chastiser of Israel, suddenly declare v’ameich kulam tsaddikim? Is every Jew righteous? Rather, by the word kulam, “all”, he infers that when the needs of the klal, of the whole, i.e. the community, take precedence, then we are, as a whole, a “people” and “righteous”. But when the ‘rights’ and desires of individuals, or pockets of individuals are allowed to override communal responsibility, then the ominous predictions of the great chastiser are sadly realized.

The eleven spices comprising the ketoret, the incense that was burned in the Temple, included chelbena, galbanum, which reputedly (Kritot 6a) had a foul odor in isolation. However, compounded together with the other ten, the unpleasant smell was neutralized and maybe even transformed.

The message is clear. The individual has to be subordinate to the whole. While Judaism preaches compassion to all (“His tender mercies are over all His creatures” – Psalms 145:9), when the interests of the yachid and the rabim cannot co-exist together, the Jewish world – and by moral and ethical extension the world in general – must prioritize the needs of the rabim, the community, over those of the yachid, the individual. It is a lesson which our generation will ignore at its peril.

About the Author
Rabbi Chaim Ingram is the author of five books on Judaism. He is a senior tutor for the Sydney Beth Din and the non-resident rabbi of the Adelaide Hebrew Congregation. He can be reached at
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