Silence in the Face of Accusations
Silence implies guilt. If we refuse to deny an accusation, we give it credibility. Does that mean that we are obligated to respond to every insult and accusation against us? In theory, we can easily deny a charge. However, often responding to it gives it credibility. Some mischievous people might constantly manufacture new and creative accusations to force us to play their game. Malicious people might try to divert our attention from our missions by throwing accusations at us and forcing us to address them.
In Kesubos (14b), R. Yochanan concludes that if someone accuses you of any invalid lineage, such as being a mamzer, and you remain silent, the accusation is accepted. In other words, you always have to respond to accusations of that nature. Significantly, Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Issurei Bi’ah 19:22) rules this way without any caveats.
Rav Ya’akov (Mahari) Weil addressed the question of Shimon who hit Reuven with a stick on the head and caused serious bleeding. Shimon turned Reuven into the Medieval German police, who did not treat Jews well. Instead, Jews tried to maintain justice without resorting to secular authorities. The police visit forced Shimon to pay bail and a little extra as a bribe. Shimon publicly confronted Reuven about turning him into the police and Reuven responded with something ambiguous. While Shimon obviously must pay for his sin, does Reuven also have to reimburse Shimon for the police expenses?
Mahari Weil (Responsa, 28) quotes the above Rambam and says that if Reuven had said nothing, he would have been presumed guilty of turning Shimon into the police. Now that he responded ambiguously, rather than clearly denying it, it is even worse. However, since the police would have investigated this crime anyway, Reuven did not have to pay for Shimon’s police bribe. For our purposes, it is important to see that Mahari Weil follows Rambam on the need to respond clearly to accusations or be presumed guilty.
Limitations on the Need to Respond
However, there are three other views that limit this power of strangers. Ramban and Rashba, in their respective commentaries to Kesubos (ad loc.), say that this entire discussion revolves around someone whose family has serious lineage questions. For example, if a definite or possible mamzer married into the family and someone accuses you of being a mamzer also, then you have to deny the charge. There is a basis to the accusation. Otherwise, your silence does not support an otherwise baseless charge.
Rabbenu Nissim, in his commentary to the Rif on Kesubos (5a), quotes an opinion that silence only implies guilt if you are responding to other accusations. If someone says that you are both a chalal (desanctified kohen) and a mamzer, and you reply that you are not a chalal, then you imply that the mamzer charge is correct. However, if you do not respond at all then your silence does not imply agreement.
Ra’avad, in a gloss to Rambam’s ruling, offers a broad statement on the limitations of this Talmudic rule. There is a competing concern to that of responding to an accusation. Yes, clearing your name is important. But so is humility and avoiding fights. Elsewhere, the Talmud (Shabbos 88b) praises those “who are insulted and do not insult, who hear their shame and do not respond.” When should you be silent and when should you respond?
Ra’avad says that there is an important difference between our (his) times and those of the Talmud. In Talmudic days, a religious court would impose fines or otherwise punish someone who publicly insulted another. If you fail to respond, your silence implies agreement and exempts the accuser from a fine. However, when there is no affect to the legal outcome, it is better to suffer insults in silence.
Choose When to Respond
Rav Yosef Karo, in his Shulchan Aruch (Even Ha-Ezer 2:4) follows Rambam if someone accuses a family of having problematic lineage and they do not respond, you should be wary of marrying into that family. However, Rav Moshe Isserles (Rema; Gloss, ad loc.) disagrees. He quotes approvingly the three dissenting views mentioned above. Rav Shmuel de Modena (Maharshdam; Responsa, Even Ha-Ezer 236) follows the lenient views even before the fact (lechatchilah). Maharshdam insists that today you need two witnesses to testify about an accusation against a family’s lineage before it is believed.
More recently, Rav Yisrael Meir Kagan (Chafetz Chaim, Lashon Ha-Ra 7:2 and in footnote 3) writes that you may not believe an accusation merely because the accused responds with silence, even if the accusation is repeated to his face. Maybe the accused chose the path of humility and overcame his desire to defend himself. Or maybe he believes that it is pointless to respond because people prefer to believe a juicy accusation rather than a defensive response. The Dirshu edition of Chafetz Chaim (ad loc., n. 6) adds that maybe any defense requires him to point out someone else’s guilt, which might be inappropriate or even forbidden in that specific case. Or maybe he is embarrassed to even address a baseless accusation of that nature.
Generally speaking, you have the right to choose your battles. No one has the right to force you to respond, to pull your strings and make you act according to their desires. If they take you to court, then both the accuser and the accusation will be subject to proper scrutiny. Otherwise, it is up to your best judgment when and whether to respond to an accusation. In such cases, silence does not imply agreement and might be the best response.