can you keep a secret?

Written by  rabbi russ resnik

art-keepsecretYou shall not go about as a talebearer among your people. --  Lev 19:16

A talebearer reveals secrets, "But he who is of a faithful spirit conceals a matter" (Prov 11:13)

Have you ever been in on a conversation that started like this: “Can you keep a secret? I’m really not supposed to talk about this, but . . .” or “So-and-so made me promise not to tell anyone about this, but . . .”? This opening line is usually followed by an explanation of why it’s OK to not keep the secret, but to share the forbidden information with you, often in flattering terms. But don’t yield to flattery; the right response to this opening line is, “Wait, don’t tell me! If it’s supposed to be a secret I don’t want to know it.”

Nothing destroys trust in a relationship more quickly than violating confidentiality. Or, to put it positively, maintaining confidentiality is a powerful key to building trust, and developing the middah of trustworthiness. We have to work on it not only within ourselves, but also in our conversations with others.

Confidentiality is a pillar of professional practice like counseling, law, and pastoral or rabbinic work. Information that someone gains in these special relationships is protected, and for a professional to violate confidentiality threatens his or her entire practice. But confidentiality is also part of life according to mussar in general. Any information you gain about another person specifically because of your particular relationship—whether as a friend, loved one, employer, mentor, and so on—is private. In other words, in all our relationships, what we know about another person, unless it is clearly public information, should be kept private. Keeping information sealed demonstrates trustworthiness and increases trustworthiness as well. 

As with all matters of mussar, there are a few exceptions to confidentiality. If someone tells you about a plan to harm himself or someone else, and it’s really a plan and not just a feeling of despair or hostility, you need to violate confidentiality to protect another person’s life or safety. If you learn about abuse of children, you must violate confidentiality to protect the vulnerable.

Aside from these exceptions, however, we need to be trustworthy with private information. You can’t pass it on with the condition that the other person not pass it on: “I’m really not supposed to talk about this, but I know you won’t tell anyone else, so I’m telling you . . .” It doesn’t work; you’ve just demonstrated that the promise to keep a secret isn’t binding. Whoever you pass this information to is likely to say the same thing to someone else—“I’m really not supposed to talk about this, but . . .” and before you know it, you read it on someone’s Face Book prayer list. In fact, asking for prayer is a rather common way we violate confidentiality and destroy trust. If you have private information, you’ll have to pray for it in private too. People often make an exception for their husband or wife, but even this requires the permission of the person you want to talk about. You can tell them that anything you discuss is strictly confidential, except that you want to share it with your spouse, if that’s acceptable to them.Otherwise, you need to be trustworthy and not share it with anyone.

Can you keep a secret? The instruction in Leviticus, “You shall not go about as a talebearer among your people,” is given within the extended passage that ends, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18). Keeping a secret is not only essential to good and trusting relationships, not only essential to the middah of trustworthiness, but also essential to true love for our friends and neighbors.

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