When Can We Lie With a Clear Conscience?
My book, When a Lie Is Not a Sin: The Hebrew Bible’s Framework for Deciding (Jewish Lights), had just come out when another guest turned to me during a Shabbat dinner and asked, “Now that you’ve written about lying, do you tell fewer lies?”
Do I tell fewer lies?
That’s some nerve!
The question assumes that I’ve lied in the past and continue to lie. Imagine I wrote a book about theft instead and he asked, “Do you steal as much as you used to?” and I say, “Oh, no! Now I only steal half as much.” Or maybe, with all this research and writing, I’ve become so good at lying that I now lie more than ever.
That dinner conversation stays in my mind as we begin the High Holiday season, using this month of Elul as a period of self-examination in light of Jewish teaching; we consider our behavior in relation to others through the Torah’s lens, and questions of truth-telling are on that long list.
When it comes to truth and falsehood, we must realize that everyone lies. For instance, a co-worker greets you on Monday with, “How was your weekend?” a friend asks, “What’s your opinion of my necktie?” or a neighbor wants to know, “What do you think about the color I painted the fence?” You answer each with a forced and mildly warm, “Just fine!” though your thoughts are otherwise. Maybe you don’t want to bother with telling the truth. Maybe the person you’re talking to is a liar herself and she deserves to be lied to in response.
So you lie. Just like me, and just like the people in the Torah.
Sarah laughs and lies to God about it. (Genesis 18:9-15) That’s after Abraham and Sarah cover up the truth, saying that they are brother and sister without revealing they are husband and wife. (Genesis 12:10-20) There’s Jacob – who dresses up and pretends to be his brother, Esau. (Genesis 27:1-45) And, of course, the Hebrew midwives, Shifra and Puah, put one over on Pharaoh. (Exodus 1.15-21) The Torah is true and wants us to tell the truth, yet includes stories of lies to teach us some very important things.
Looking more closely, we see that, in general, Torah people lie when they have a good, moral reason to lie. Abraham and Sarah conceal their marriage from the Egyptians to avoid starving to death during a famine. Jacob impersonates his brother, Esau, because he knows – just as his parents know and we know – it would have been a great mistake to let Esau lead the Jewish people. And the Hebrew midwives lie to that evil Pharaoh, sparing Hebrew baby boys and saving their own lives, too. So, the Torah wants us to tell the truth, yet it also includes stories of lies to show that there are times when even a Torah of truth realizes that some lies serve a higher moral purpose.
It’s a challenge to be 100% truthful. What do you say in a college letter of recommendation or a job reference when your candidate is maybe adequate, but not exceptionally good? When I accidently bash another car bumper in a parking lot, do I drive off or do I stop, get out of the car and leave my contact information in the windshield of the damaged car? While the Torah doesn’t give us advice for every imaginable situation, it offers wise counsel and guidance.
We begin by recognizing that God gives us each the responsibility to “distinguish between good and evil,” just like the book of Genesis (3.22) teaches. The Torah wants us to know that each person has the responsibility to weigh fine distinctions of right and wrong. Each of us is to take the teachings of Torah on one hand and the lessons learned from real life on the other, come to wise conclusions, and act on those decisions. And for the times that we fall short of the ideal, we are to take advantage of the serious and substantial opportunities of Shabbat and the coming new year to consider our behavior and go back and make amends. Living the examined Jewish life is the central spiritual task of this upcoming High Holiday season.
Oh, yes, that dinner question, “Now that you have written about lying, do you tell fewer lies?” My answer: “I lie as much as ever. I just spend more time thinking about it.” And that “thinking about it” may not be such a bad thing, as when a lie serves a higher moral purpose.
From a Jewish moral and spiritual perspective, there’s a world of difference between lying without thinking and lying accompanied by heartfelt consideration. The examined Jewish life means doing what you and I do right now on Shabbat and through the weeks to follow, joining community in prayer, song, reflection, and celebration, each one of us trying to become a better person tomorrow.