Are rabbis obliged to keep the confidentiality of Jews who confess to wrongdoing?

November 30, 2012

Question: I know Catholics observe the secrets of the confessional, but should rabbis be obliged to keep the confidence of Jews who confess to misdemeanours?

Rabbi Naftali Brawer

Naftali Brawer is the CEO of the Spiritual Capital Foundation.

That very much depends on the nature of the misdemeanour. If the individual sinned against God through a religious violation, that must certainly be kept confidential. The Talmud (Yoma 86b) states clearly that one must refrain from confessing such sins before anyone but God and Rashi explains that this is because that publicising such offences is dishonourable to God. This is why, for example, on Yom Kippur the only confessional prayers recited out loud are the formulaic ones in the prayer book. As for the specifics, each individual is expected to confess their own particular sins silently.

In Judaism each person must approach God alone. There are no middlemen. In some respects it makes things easier, or less embarrassing than confessing to one’s priest. Yet, in other respects it is more intense. Given that there is no feedback, one must ensure that the confession and its accompanying resolution not to repeat the offence are as sincere as possible.

If, however, the sin was an offence against one’s fellow man, one is obligated to confess, not to a third party but to the victim (and make restitution if necessary.) The obligation rests entirely on the one who committed the offence.

But there are circumstances when one is obligated to breach confidentiality and that is when the information is crucial to the well-being of an unassuming third party.

Maimonides states that a person who holds back vital information concerning harm about to be perpetrated on another is in violation of the biblical command not to stand idly by the blood of your brother (Leviticus 19:16).

The 20th-century German-Swiss halachist Rabbi Jacob Breish was asked about a situation in which a doctor knew that a young man about to marry was concealing from his bride a fatal illness. The doctor wanted to know whether his obligation was to the young man or the woman. Rabbi Breish, basing his responsum on Maimonides, ruled unequivocally that the doctor is obligated to inform the young woman about her groom’s condition.

The same would apply to a confession. If the information obtained through it can be used to protect others from either material or physical harm, then there is an obligation to share that information. The responsibility to save or protect an unsuspecting third party trumps any considerations regarding confidentiality.

Rabbi Jonathan Romain

Jonathan Romain is rabbi at Maidenhead (Reform) Synagogue.

Catholics can go to church, enter the confession box and unburden themselves of their faults. At its best, it can be a very cathartic experience, allowing people to let go of fears and guilts that were poisoning their lives or hurting their relationships with others.

However, we have exactly the same opportunities through teshuvah — repentance. We may associate it particularly with the High Holy-Days, but it can be done at any time, while wrongs should be confessed as soon as possible and not delayed. In this respect, we believe we have a direct line to God through prayer and do not need a human intermediary.

We also hold that, whereas faults against God, such as a vow that was broken, can be atoned for in this way, sins against others cannot simply be prayed away but need practical action to undo their effect, both personally and materially. Here, we depart from the confession box, for although the priest might encourage someone to own up to their misdemeanour, if the person refuses, the priest will not break confidence, be it for a petty fault or a major crime, and will rely on God to change that person’s heart.

Judaism believes in justice and that means consequences for those who act unjustly, the duty to defend those who have been wronged and the obligation to protect those who might become future victims.

So if someone approached a rabbi and confessed a personal lapse that did not affect others, then there is no reason for the rabbi to break confidence, while doing so would harm the pastoral relationship. That would still apply if the fault concerned others but was on a minor scale (such as a broken promise or intemperate outburst) and the person promised to remedy it. This might also be the case when breaking confidence could be counterproductive, such as an extra-marital affair that was deeply regretted, and the person’s resolve to strengthen their marriage might be undermined by the rabbi revealing it and destroying the other partner’s trust in them.

However, if people were harmed, or could be hurt in future if the person was not either arrested or treated for their condition, the conversation with the rabbi should be to get them to take responsibility for their actions, not avoid it. And if they are not willing to do so themselves, then there is every reason to report them.

Last updated: 1:56pm, November 30 2012