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Upholding a Good Reputation is a Divine Obligation

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

“Rebbi would say: Which is the right path for man to choose for himself? Whichever path is ennobling for a person, and brings him ennoblement from others.” (Ethics of the Fathers 2:1) Many commentators interpret this teaching as follows. When one chooses a path or action one should ask oneself two questions. 1) Is this course of action one that is positive, ethical and moral (An action that will ennoble the human spirit)? 2) Will other people view my action as positive, ethical and moral?

It is not sufficient to act in a way that is good, one must also be seen to be acting in a good and ethical way. A typical example of this would be a person entering a brothel to give charity to the poor office assistant. The person’s intentions may be entirely pure and noble, nonetheless the onlooker would assume that the purpose of entry was sinful. This concept is referred to by our Sages as ‘Marit Ayin’ or ‘Chashad’ (appearance of the eye or suspicion.) It seems that not only are we instructed to do things that are intrinsically correct but also to make sure that our actions appear to be correct in the eyes of external viewer.

The question is: why should this be true? If I know that I am doing a virtuous act why should I be concerned with what others think? Why should I be concerned with public opinion? Rabbi Yosef Dov Ber Soloveichik of blessed memory suggests that in Torah thought just as one’s body and possessions belong to God so to ones reputation is sacred and belongs to God. Just as one must use ones body and possessions in accordance with the Divine will, so to one’s reputation must be preserved in accordance with the Divine will. This interpretation begs a further question. Why is this indeed the divine will? Why is the divine will concerned with how others perceive a person’s actions?

The Maharal in his commentary to the above teaching from Ethics of the Fathers explains that the source of the teaching is a verse in Parshat Maot which states “…and you shall be clean of sin before Hashem and Israel.” The Maharal explains that just as we have obligations we must fulfill towards God so to we have obligations we must fulfill towards our fellow man. Herein I believe lies the key to understanding the entire issue. The reason we are commanded to be careful to do things that uphold our reputations is not because we are concerned with what others think of us. On the contrary we must uphold our reputations because we care about the rest of humanity. We have a responsibility to uphold the moral fabric of society. When others perceive us to be doing something wrong this lowers the accepted moral standards. Others lose their sensitivity to the severity of a moral infringement. After all if so and so is doing it, it can it be so wrong? As my kids often badger ‘Everyone is doing it Dad.’

Upholding our good reputation is indeed a Divine obligation. This obligation stems from our divine Obligation to care for others. When we uphold our good reputations we serve our fellow man in the most profound way by raising the moral fabric of our society.