We have recently read a number of examples where even the righteous and sometimes the not-so-righteous lie. For example, in our Torah Reading for this week, Toldot, Rivka encouraged Jacob to deceive his father. She may have believed that she did so because of the prophecy that Jacob would inherit his father’s estate, but it was a lie nonetheless. There are even moments when Adonai lies—for example, he does not tell Abraham the real reason that his wife Sarah laughed at the prophecy that she will bear a child, namely that her husband was so old. These examples suggest that, for us as Jews, lying is a complicated matter and no absolute rules are appropriate. To condemn lying completely might be clearer in many respects but to do so disregards situations where lying might not only be allowed but perhaps even be necessary. As we think about the lies told by Jews and righteous Gentiles during the Holocaust, we would be highly unlikely to criticize their actions. But we also recognize that it’s not always the case that “the end justifies the means.” As always, we are willing to live with some gray!
Rav Yonah, a Talmudic scholar, listed nine different categories of lies, with people cheating in business and causing other people financial loss being the worst.
There was once a man who was a tailor and he took a partner in the business. One day, a man left a jacket for altering. After the customer left, the tailor checked the garment and found $500.00 in one of the pockets. This created a great moral dilemma. Should he tell his partner??
Another form of lying, per Rav Yonah, is “changing minor details when retelling an episode”; being wrong but less wrong. The lies he cites are all related to self-aggrandizement and/or cheating other people—promising to do something for someone, knowing that one has no intention of doing so, for example. I would guess that many of us have told some of those lies in some of those categories.
On the other side, Talmudic literature provides us with stories where lying seems to be justified, where it is done for “good reasons.” But how do we interpret those stories, given that they can be understood on so many levels? Practical Halachah gives us more specific guidance. For example, we are allowed to say, “I don’t know” (even when we do) if we’re asked about information that is confidential. A wealthy person can lie to avoid ayin hara or arousing jealousy. And a man is permitted to lie to his wife about the time if she will be late for Shabbat! But even there there are limits—he can only do so if she is procrastinating, not if she is rushing to get ready because that would only increase the pressure on her.
Though there may not be clear answers, these examples as well as the examples from the Torah lead us to think about our own actions and our own willingness (or unwillingness) to tell a direct lie or to deceive others indirectly. Thinking twice about such actions can never be a bad idea! Truth is weighed against doing chesed, with chesed held up as a more desirable concept.
As Jews, we try to emulate God. A clue to God’s qualities is the recitation of his midot, his attributes, words taken directly from Torah. The listing includes, “gracious, compassionate, patient, abounding in kindness, assuring love for a thousand generations.” Nowhere here do we see the concept of truth. It can be concluded, then, that being kind takes precedence over the monolithic telling of the truth.