Q. Is there a right to remain silent in Judaism?
A. Actually there is a duty. People talk far too much and would often do better to say nothing. At the very least they should guard their speech, which is what the end of the Amidah means when it says, “O my God, guard my tongue from evil and my lips from speaking guile”.
But you probably had in mind the widespread notion that when asked a question in court you don’t have to answer and can leave the question mark hanging.
Jewish law has a different approach. It goes by the principle, sh’tikah k’hoda’ah – “silence constitutes assent”. Thus if in the presence of witnesses a man hands a woman a ring and says Harei at m’kudeshet li… – “Behold, you are betrothed to me…” and she accepts it in silence, she is regarded as consenting since she could have spoken and objected.
From the general ethical point of view, silence is also an admission of consent. If you see evil perpetrated before you and you remain silent, you share in the guilt: the Torah says, “Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbour” (Lev. 19:16). To stand out and speak out may make things worse for you, but Pir’kei Avot (2:5) says, “Where there are no men (of courage), you must try to be a man”.
True, some authorities believe that you are not required to endanger your own life to save another person, but others say you must do and say what you have to: Psalm 15:4 praises those who put themselves at a disadvantage in doing their duty.