by Rabbi Evan Schultz, January 2018/Tevet-Shevat 5778
Truth. Lies. Fake News. Trusted News. Honest News.
These days it seems harder than ever to distinguish truth from fiction, fact from falsity. It seems that truth has become a matter of opinion these days; reality has become so garbled that many of us just don’t know what to believe or who to believe. How do we navigate this seemingly new reality?
Lying is certainly nothing new. Adam and Eve lie to God about their whereabouts in the Garden of Eden. Sarah lies to God when God accuses her of laughing at the news of her pregnancy. Joseph lies to his brothers about the nature of his identity when they come to him, hungry for food.
Fast forward a few thousand years, human nature doesn’t seem to have changed very much. It seems we open the newspaper and read of people lying, admitting they lied, or accusing someone else of lying. So should we just demand everyone start telling the truth? Well, it’s not that simple.
Lying may be an innate human characteristic, but in fact our rabbis sometimes permitted lying. Our tradition does not always advocate telling the truth (No, I’m not advocating lying here – you should be a truthful person, but there are exceptions).
Let’s take a look at a few texts from our tradition (you can study these at home with your family or friends):
1) Rabbi Yehoshua ben Ḥananya said… One time I was staying at a certain inn and the hostess prepared me beans. On the first day I ate them and left nothing over, although proper etiquette dictates that one should leave over something on his plate. On the second day I again ate and left nothing over. On the third day she over-salted them so that they were inedible. As soon as I tasted them, I withdrew my hands from them. She said to me: My Rabbi, why aren’t you eating beans as on the previous days? Not wishing to offend her, I said to her: I have already eaten during the daytime. (Eruvin 53b)
2) Rav Yehuda said in the name of Shmuel, “In only these three matters is it the practice of the rabbis to deviate in their speech [from the truth]: regarding a section of Torah, intimacy, and hospitality. (Bava Metzia 23b)
3)What is truth (אמת) and what is falsehood (שקר)? When we went to school we were taught that truth is to tell facts as they occurred and falsehood is to deviate from this. This is true in simple cases, but in life many occasions arise when this simple definition no longer applies. Sometimes it may be wrong to “tell the truth” about another person, for example if it would reveal something negative about him, unless there was an overriding purpose and necessity. And sometimes it may be necessary to change details, when the plain truth would not bring benefit, but injury. In such cases what appears to be true is false (שקר), since it produces evil effects; and what appears to be false may help to achieve the truth. We had better define truth (אמת) as that which is conducive to good and which conforms with the Will of the Creator, and falsehood (שקר) as that which furthers the scheme of the Yetzer HaRah, the power of evil in the world. (Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler, Michtav M’Eliyahu, Vol. I, p. 94)
What is your takeaway from these texts? It would seem that our tradition asserts that there are certain situations where it is okay to lie, provided there is some great purpose – kindness, hospitality, and goodness. Do you agree with the rabbis? If so – next time to you need lie, remember why you’re doing it – bring some kindness and goodness into the world!