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Is saying things that would otherwise be considered loshon hara permitted in the context of mental health therapy?

I am not familiar with the details of therapeutic schools, but I understand that some are predicated on an idea of speaking "freely" and exhaustively about the topics of therapeutic interest. Are there opinions that allow all speech within these contexts, understanding that the goal is the improvement of health and possibly the preservation of life?

  • This would seem to fall within the context of "toeles" mentioned by the Chofetz Chaim. Generally, we interpret that as a constructive purpose to benefit someone else, but here it's about your personal mental health. Since therapists are explicitly trained to remain impartial, it may be possible that talking to them about personal problems is not rechilus, circumventing the second major problem... – Isaac Kotlicky May 27 '15 at 16:58
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    Related judaism.stackexchange.com/questions/55126/… – user6591 May 27 '15 at 16:58
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    @IsaacKotlicky good info, thanks. But AFAIK even in the case of toeles one is required to meet a number of conditions (rebuking the bad person, not finding any alternative way to prevent the harm, etc.) before being allowed to say it. Would these also be necessary before talking about the person in therapy? – SAH May 27 '15 at 17:10
  • This is orthagonal to "normal" toeles. Most cases of toeles involve stopping the person doing wrong or preventing someone from interacting with that person (marriage, business, etc.). Here we are addressing your personal mind ex post facto to the events in question - fixing/dealing with how YOU were affected by the person. There is no "preventative measure" possible that can change the past: therapy IS the answer. – Isaac Kotlicky May 27 '15 at 17:15
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The Chofetz Chaim writes in a note to the fifth detail of permissible Lashon Hara in Hilchos Lashon Hara 10:14

אפשר דהוא הדין אם כוונתו בסיפורו להפיג את דאגתו מלבו - הוי כמכוון לתועלת על להבא, [ולפי זה מה שאמרו ז"ל, דאגה בלב איש ישיחנה לאחרים, קאי גם על ענין כזה]. אך שיזהר שלא יחסרו שאר הפרטים שבסעיף זה"

It is possible that the same [allowance] applies if his intent in retelling is to remove the worry from his heart, it is like intending for toeles for the future [and according to this, that which Chazal say "[when there is] worry in the heart of a man, speak it over to others" also applies to this concept]. However, be careful not to lack any of the other details from this section.

"This section" is the section of the 7 requirements of speaking Lashon Hara(*), and the Chofetz Chaim writes that helping one's self cope, while it constitutes valid toeles, still requires the rest of the preconditions for speaking Lashon Hara.

(*) 1 - Firsthand knowledge

2 - Be sure you are not jumping to conclusions

3 - Speak to the offender, if you think that may work

4- Don't exaggerate, or leave out important details

5 - to'eles

6 - Ensure that there is no other route that could cause the to'eles

7 - Ensure that your words will not cause more damage than is duly deserved

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    Although your basic maareh makom is spot on, IIRC one prerequisite is presenting the information without any personal slant. Therapy is all about presenting the information in a personal way, and discussing how you feel about it. This would not qualify. I think this question needs a post therapy revolution posek being that it may be a matter of pikuach nefesh, which the Mishna Berurah was not discussing. – user6591 May 27 '15 at 18:15
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    Thanks @yEz; nice answer. However, those "other details"--if I remember correctly--include things like rebuking the person and making sure your speech passes other difficult tests. Do we know that one would truly have to fulfill these before saying /loshon hara in therapy? – SAH May 27 '15 at 21:35
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    @SAH ask your Rabbi, but it seems that way to me. I would think of it the following way (which I don't doubt that someone on this site will take issue with) - if there was a therapy which involved punching the person who upset you in their kidneys, we could assume therapy wouldn't justify it. Therapy may count as a to'eles, but it wouldn't obviate issurim. If it were a case of real danger to the patient, then there are separate rules for that kind of situation. – Y     e     z May 28 '15 at 2:49
  • Considering the standard methods for discussing events via therapy, it seems they would fit into the preconditions mentioned here: 1) it's about your personal experience and how it affected you 2) part of the therapy is being conscious of the conclusions drawn and addressing/correcting them 3) speaking to the offender is often used as part of the process once the patient has developed enough 4) the therapist specifically works on teasing out the truth/details 5&6) it's therapy, you get it because it's needed 7) HIPPA precludes foreclosure of details outside of therapy, minimizing damage. – Isaac Kotlicky May 28 '15 at 17:29
  • @yEz, I don't completely agree with your summary of the Chofetz Chaim's preconditions--for example #3: IIRC, rebuking the person prior to saying loshon hara is a firm requirement, not just "if you think that may work." So I still wonder whether therapy would meet all of the conditions. – SAH May 29 '15 at 5:00
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Rabbi Hershel Schachter has a yutorah mp3 on academic integrity (and the need for students to report cheating to the appropriate board); he mentions there explicitly "if someone needs to pour their heart out to a psychiatrist" that would be permissible.

  • Is it possible he was quoting the same Chafetz Chaim that @yez quoted? – Shoel U'Meishiv May 28 '15 at 16:33
  • @Mefaresh yes he mentioned that citation from Chafetz Chaim -- but then gave this explicit example as an application. – Shalom May 28 '15 at 17:07
  • Maybe it's kdai to cite that cc and then RHS application to therapy – Shoel U'Meishiv May 28 '15 at 17:14
  • @Shalom Yes, a citation would be appreciated. Even better if you could give the sources he cites (any others?). Also, I'm unconvinced that this example indeed falls under the Chofetz Chaim's statement, because many people who talk in therapy don't fulfill the precondition of rebuking the person first (and the Chofetz Chaim emphasizes that even in this case, "all the other details" must be observed.) – SAH May 29 '15 at 5:13
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Rav Elchonon Wassermann (Kovetz Ha’aros Yevamos #70) regarding Lashon Harah qualifies the prohibition that it only applies when there is no benefit or to'eles:

It would seem that all that is prohibited between people (bein adam l’chavero) is only prohibited when done in a harmful and destructive manner without justification. For example regarding the prohibition of “Not hating your brother.” This is only prohibited for gratuitous hatred (sinas chinom). In other words when he is not doing anything wrong (davar ervah). However if he is doing something wrong then it is permitted to hate him. It is important to note that the reason for hatred being permitted in this case is not because of the fact that a sinful person is not considered your “brother.” Tosfos (Pesachim 113b) explains that if you hate this sinful person for another reason then you transgress the prohibition. The hatred is only permitted because of the bad (davar ervah) that you see in him. Similarly regarding the prohibition of beating another, the Rambam writes that it is prohibited only if done as fighting (derech netzoyan). This is clear from the fact that it is permitted for a teacher to his student. And this that we noted before in Sanhedrin (84b) – that is only a rabbinic restriction. And similarly concerning the prohibition of causing anguish to a widow or orphan, Rambam (Hilchos De’os 6:10) writes that if it is done to teach Torah or a trade – there is no prohibition.

Similarly, concerning the prohibition of Lashon harah, it is permitted against people who cause discord and quarrels in order to stop the fight. Similar concerning using words to cause anguish (onas devarim), it is permitted to publicly criticize someone if it is for the sake of chastisement. It is even permitted to publicly embarrass someone if it is done for the necessity of chastisement for a person who has not stopped his bad behavior after being rebuked in private. In such a case it is even permissible to curse him. In fact, this is what was done by the prophets in the past as the Rambam (Hilchos De’os 6:8) notes. We have thus shown from all this, that all the prohibition involving interpersonal actions does not apply when the act is beneficial."

Excerpt and translation of Rav Elchonon Wasserman is from The Daas Torah Blog For more see there. Emphases are mine.

Based on this, one can conclude that if speaking to your therapist will help you and is for your benefit, even though it will include telling Lashon Harah to them, it would be permitted.

This should not be used for practical Halacha.

See here as well from Ohr Somayach:

JK wrote:

I was wondering about the laws of Lashon Harah (negative speech) and Clinical Therapy. Are there parameters governing what may and may not be said during therapy? For instance, what if I am having trouble with my dad or my sister, and there are issues about them that I need to talk about. From a clinical point of view, the more honest I am the more likely it is for therapy to be helpful. Also, from the clinician's point of view, are there parameters governing their validation of feelings and issues?

Dear JK,

Your question is a good one and often asked. You wrote about 'Clinical Therapy,' but your question applies equally whether you speak to a 'professional' therapist or an 'amateur' -- e.g., your best friend, your spouse, your barber...

Speaking 'bad' about others is forbidden. In general, however, you're allowed to say negative things about a person for a beneficial purpose. For example, to help your relationship with that person.

However, certain conditions must be met. Among these conditions:

You must know what you say is true. "My sister makes fun of me." If you heard the information from someone else, you must mention that it's not first-hand. "My cousin says she makes fun of him too." If what you are saying is just your opinion, it should be stated that way. Don't exaggerate. "She never misses a chance to be mean." If appropriate, say some positive things so the listener won't form a totally negative picture of the person. Say only as much as necessary. The fact that she makes fun of your cousin is probably irrelevant, and should not be said. Most of all, your intention when you relate the negative information must be to improve the situation, and not to speak out of animosity. When speaking about parents extra care must be taken, since it's a Torah commandment to honor them. Nevertheless, if all the conditions are met, it's allowed. The listener has to walk a tight-rope: He has to take the information seriously, but he must not accept it as the absolute truth. If possible, he should help the speaker see the person in a more positive light.

Our Sages say that prior to the coming of the mashiach, family discord will be rampant; this description fits our generation all too well. Through careful speech, judging people favorably, love and understanding, may we merit the fulfillment of the verse "And he will return the hearts of the fathers to the sons, and the hearts of the sons to their fathers."

Speaking of clinical therapy: A psychiatrist's receptionist alerted the doctor: "There's a man in the waiting room who says he is invisible!" "Tell him I can't see him right now," said the doctor.

See here as well

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    The quotation you've included does not directly say "that [the prohibition of LH] only applies when the intention is to damage." // Does R' Elchonon really mean that if the intent is to benefit oneself, one has a carte blanche to say negative things about other people, in opposition to the Chofetz Chaim's position that many conditions are necessary? With only a quotation taken out of context like this, it's impossible to be sure, and the difference in terms of practice is great. – Isaac Moses May 27 '15 at 17:59
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    That actually is what Rav Elchonon saying. Look it up as well as link provided above. There are other opinions regarding Lashon Harah outside of the Chofetz Chaim – Shoel U'Meishiv May 27 '15 at 18:02
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    the quotation you've selected addresses specifically cases in which the target is causing fights or requires "chastisment" (hochacha, I assume, which has its own set of requirements, IINM). That does not establish carte blanche. If other parts of R' Elchonon's piece do clearly establish a carte blanche in all cases of benefit to oneself, then those would make for more useful quotations here. – Isaac Moses May 27 '15 at 18:11
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    +1 - does R' Elchonon acknowledge that he is arguing with his mentor, or is the excerpt from the Chofetz Chaim in the other answer here subject to interpretation such that R' Elchonon does not feel it conflicts? – jim May 27 '15 at 20:29
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    "The prohibition [on loshon hara] only applies when there is no benefit?" So if the benefit were that I got lots of attention from my friends when I made fun of someone behind their back, I could do it? – SAH May 27 '15 at 21:37
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According to R. Menahem HaMeiri the definition of l'shon hara, is speech that is meant to be defamatory or hurtful. Thus, statements of a negative nature that are said for a positive reason (in this case the improvement of health and possibly the preservation of life in the context of mental health therapy), and not to hurt others, are permissible since by definition they are not l'shon hara. These are his words in is Hibbur HaTeshuva (Meshiv Nefesh I:4):

עקר לשון הרע הוא המתמיד לספר בגנות האחרים ויתן דפי בענינים או שילעג להם למעוט הצלחתם...ומעין זה מי שילעיג על חבריו למעוט השגתם בידיעה...לכונת לעג וליצנות...וכלל הדברים כל אשר יתן מום באדם...ללא כונת ענין נבחר הוא ענין לשון הרע...שאין לספר במומי בני האדם על דרך לעג וליצנות, אם לא יעשה כן...לאיזו כונה

The archetypal l'shon hara is one who frequently relates embarrassing things about others, and adds falsehood to what he says, or he defames them on their lack of success...And similarly one who defames his fellows on their lack of intellect for the purpose of defamation and mockery...The rule is that anyone who ascribes a fault to others...without some specific intent is l'shon hara...For one should not relate the faults of others in context of defamation and mockery, unless he is speaking for some purpose. (Translation my own).

So while you should always use your judgement as to the most effective way to help yourself, while minimising any damaging effects of one's behaviours, it does not appear that that speaking to a therapist for the purpose of therapy could qualify as l'shon hara according to the Meiri.

This also appears to be the opinion of this is also the opinion of R. Elhanan Wasserman, who generalises this to all interpersonal mitsvot. He writes in Kovets Ha’arot (Yevamot: 70):

ולולי דבריהם היה נראה, דכל האיסורין שבין אדם לחבירו אינן איסורין אלא דרך קילקול והשחתה שלא לצורך... וכן בלאו דלא תלך רכיל, מותר לספר לה"ר על בעלי מחלוקת כדי להשקיט המריבה. וכן בלאו דאונאת דברים... ומוכח מכ"ז, דכל האיסורין האלו הותרו לצורך תועלת

If not for their words, it would appear that all interpersonal prohibitions, are only forbidden in the context of degrading and tarnishing others for no purpose...And so too with the prohibition of gossiping, it is permitted to tell l'shon hara on disputants to quell the dispute...And similarly with the prohibition of onaat d'varim [verbal abuse]...And it is evident from all this that all of these prohibition are permitted to achieve an end. (Trans. my own).

Importantly, they do not attach conditions to to'elet, as the Haffets Hayyim famously does.

Similarly, the eminent modern day halakhic authority, R. Asher Weiss Shlit"a writes in Minhat Asher to Leviticus (p. 268) that to'elet renders speech permissible and not l'shon hara, by definition.

באיסורי תורה צריך לדון בדיני דחיה האם תועלת זו ראויה לדחות איסור ...אבל בהלכות לשה"ר לאו מדין דחיה אתינן עלה, אלא יסוד האיסור תלוי במדה רעה וכל שכונתו לטובה...ולא לרעתו אין בזה עבירה כלל, ודו"ק בכ"ז כי לענ"ד ברור הוא

With Torah prohibitions one must evaluate with the laws of dehiya [prioritisation], whether this to'elet [purpose] is sufficient to supersede a prohibition. But with the laws of l'shon hara, we are not utilising the law of supercession. Rather, the very definition of the prohibition depends on negative character traits, and anything in which his intent is for good...and not for someone else's harm, has no prohibition whatsoever, and consider all of this, for in my humble opinion, it is clear.

He shows that this is the opinion of Rashi (Moed Katan 16a s.v. amar lei la'avuha) and sharply disputes (p. 267) the Hafets Hayyim's attempt at escaping the implication of Rashi:

אך בחפץ חיים...כתב...ודבריו קשים לכאו' דמלבד שאין הדברים מתיישבים בלשון רש"י

However in Haffets Hayyim...he wrote...and his words appear difficult, for besides for the fact that his words don't fit with Rashi's wording...

[Like R. Elhanan, he connects this to the idea that interpersonal mitsvot in general are by definition only prohibited when they are malicious. (In particular he connects this to the prohibition of overcharging, see p. 267)].

Importantly, he clarifies (p. 267) that there are limits to the limitation of l'shon hara to cases of malicious intent:

דשאני המספר לשה"ר דרך קלות ראש דהרי פושע גמור ובזה ודאי עובר בחטא כיון שהדברים מצד עצמם הם לשה"ר גמור ובדרך שחוק וקלות ראש מנבל הוא את פיו בכה"ג פושע הוא אף שלא התכוין להרע לחבירו

For it is different if a person speaks l'shon hara with frivolity, since the matters are intrinsically l'shon hara and in the context of frivolity and levity, he pollutes his mouth. In such a case, he is a willful sinner even though he didn't intent to harm his fellow.

That is: "I was just having a good time", isn't a legitimate excuse to speak disparagingly about someone. However, by all indications, speaking when there is some specific purpose, such as speaking to a therapist, would be fine.

This is stated by R. David Cohen Shlit"a as well:

This to my mind [is similar to when] the poskim speak about lashon harah l’toeles [for a helpful purpose], which is not limited to loshan harah. Any [transgression of] bein adam l’chaveiro [when it is] l’toeles is mutar (cited here, page 7)

  • Do you like this answer any less than my other nearly identical one? ;) @SAH – mevaqesh Feb 5 '17 at 17:48

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