I grew up addicted to the early Superman series on television. The opening voice-over informed us very clearly about the values for which Superman stands, “Truth, Justice and the American Way.” If we throw in motherhood and apple pie, the list of virtues is complete. I say this not to denigrate those values, but only to suggest that we seldom examine them in the depths they deserve.
Let’s take a look at one of those values: Truth. Philosophers have argued for centuries about how strict a demand human beings have for telling the truth. At the most extreme we find Immanuel Kant who argues that we have an absolute obligation always to tell the truth, despite the consequences. The famous example he gives involves a crazed killer who is stalking an innocent person whom you are sheltering. That killer comes to your home and demands to know if his prey is there. Kant would have us tell the truth. I think most of us are uncomfortable with this extreme and might cite righteous lies in Nazi Germany as the surest counter-argument to Kant.
Another ethical view Utilitarianism instructs us to tell the truth only when doing so maximizes utility. This school of thought seems to negate the moral obligation most of us feel to tell the truth. An example would be telling a dying Temple member that his bequest will go to his pet project which you have no intention of funding. As tempted as we might be, I think we would all agree that that’s wrong. But notice that the default position here is utility rather than honesty. That too seems to contradict our intuitions.
How does the Torah guide us through this moral thicket? In out Parshah, we have the story of three angels visiting Abraham. One of them says “I will return to you next year, and your wife Sarah will have a son.” Sarah overhears the conversation. She “laughs to herself, saying, ‘Now that I am withered, am I to have enjoyment – with my husband so old?’” In the very next verse, God reports her laughter to Abraham. But He does not tell Abraham the whole truth. Instead, He tells Abraham that when Sarah laughed, she said: ‘Shall l in truth bear a child, old as I am?’” God lied!
Jewish tradition says that the God acted this way to teach that peace in the home is more important than telling the truth. Why should God tell Abraham that Sarah thinks he is too old? That would embarrass him. Better to tell a little white lie. Peace in the home is a principal virtue. A little deviation from the truth is a small price to pay.
The Talmud derives a stronger principle. The rabbis assert there is a strong prohibition against “hurting with words.” It prohibits embarrassing anyone in public even if the words are true. The ancient rabbis noted that when someone is seriously shamed, the blood drains from his face. They equate this with murder, the shedding of blood, in its severity. The Bible teaches that it is better to tell a lie than to publicly shame anyone. In our story today, God avoids shaming Abraham even privately.
So, we can see that Judaism is neither absolutist nor utilitarian. At the same time, it does not offer total flexibility and permit lying whenever we feel like it or whenever it serves our interests. Instead, what becomes clear is that doing Chesed, loving-kindness, is a greater duty than the duty to tell the truth. Just as God protected Abraham’s dignity, so should we strive for compassion in our dealings with our fellow human beings.
We can’t leap tall buildings with a single bound, but we can do that!