In one of my favorite scenes from Seinfeld, Jerry claims to have never watched a single episode of Melrose Place. He is called on it, and is being forced to take a lie detector test to prove it. So he turns to the expert for advice.
Jerry: So George, how do I beat this lie detector?
George: I’m sorry, Jerry I can’t help you.
Jerry: Come on, you’ve got the gift. You’re the only one that can help me.
George: Jerry, I can’t. It’s like saying to Pavorotti, “Teach me to sing like you.”
Jerry: All right, well I’ve got to go take this test. I can’t believe I’m doing this.
George: Jerry, just remember. It’s not a lie… if you believe it.
How true. How true.
A study published about fifteen years ago found that people say things that they do not know to be factually true up to about two hundred times per day. Men tend to lie about 20% more often than women. Women, it turns out, are much better at it than men.
The study’s author, a social psychologist from the University of Budapest named Peter Steignitz, found that 41% of lies are to cover up some sort of misbehavior, 14% are “white lies” that “make social life possible,” and 6% of lies are sheer laziness. In most cases, Steignitz concluded, lies are harmless. In fact, he claimed, if nobody on earth lied anymore, “then this planet would end up completely deserted. There would be 100 wars.” His advice: “Let us be honest about our lies.”
So, how about some honesty? Someone comes up to you and says, excitedly: “how do you like my new haircut.” It’s hideous. But what do you say?
Your friend skips out on a dinner that you are both invited to. You know that he is at a hockey game, but he asks you to tell the host that he is home sick. What do you tell the host?
There are many everyday situations in which the simple telling of a white lie could save embarrassment, smooth over social interactions, or even get us out of trouble. Innocuous, right?
The social science notwithstanding, perhaps we should not be so flippant about the harmlessness of most lies. The truth is, being truthful is considered by most religious and ethical traditions to be the morally correct path.
Indeed, the Torah insists on our honesty on numerous occasions, in numerous contexts. On the other hand, the Bible’s stories are filled with people, including our greatest biblical heroes, lying themselves silly.
Both Abraham and Isaac lie about their wives, passing them off as their sisters, in order to not be killed. Jacob lies to his father Isaac, claiming to be his brother Esau in order to steal the blessing. In return, everybody lies to Jacob. After Jacob dies, Joseph’s brothers lie to him about their father’s desire for them to make peace. And all this is just in the book of Genesis!
There seems to be a discrepancy between the ideals of truthfulness contained in the Torah’s law codes, and the real-life experiences of human beings. Of course, this is entirely consistent with our experiences as well. We may, in theory, express our commitment to the principle of honesty, and yet, if we are truly honest with ourselves, most of us will probably have to admit that we lie on a daily basis.
The Torah includes many mitzvot that regulate our interactions with each other. A significant portion of those mitzvot have to do with behaviors that are forbidden. You shall not murder. You shall not steal. You shall not subvert the rights of the needy, and so on. This morning’s Torah portion presents a particular behavior in a unique way. מִדְּבַר שֶׁקֶר תִּרְחָק. “From a lying word stay far away.” (Exodus 23:7)
It does not say, “you shall not lie,” or “he who lies shall be punished in the following manner.” It tells us, instead, to distance ourself from lies. Lying is the only behavior in the entire Torah from which we are commanded to stay away.
Many commentators understand this requirement to be directed specifically at judges. The commentator Rashbam explains that in a case in which a judgment seems contrived and the witnesses false, but in which we are unable to provide an effective refutation, it is best to stay as far away as possible. A judge should stay clear of anything which could create the impression that he or she has dealings with something that is corrupt. (Sforno)
But our sources also understand this injunction to distance ourselves from lying words more broadly. The Maggid from Kelm claims that a liar is worse than a thief or a robber. The thief steals when no one is watching, and at night. The robber will steal at any time, but only from an individual person. A liar, on the other hand, will lie day or night, to individuals and groups. Our tradition has many other pithy statements like this extolling the importance of truth.
The truth is, honesty does not come naturally to us. It is something that must be taught. Any parent knows this. The most indiscriminate liars in the world are toddlers. “I didn’t do it. It fell by itself.” Our natural instinct for self-preservation pushes us to lie.
It falls on parents, teachers, and the community to educate children about the importance of truthfulness. In our family, we try to emphasize that the absolute most important rule is being honest with each other. Of course, to convey this with any success whatsoever, we have to be honest ourselves, because kids can sniff out dishonesty a mile away.
Perhaps that is what Rabbi Zeira, one of our Sages from the Talmud, is getting at when he teaches that “a person should not tell a child, I will give you something – and then not give it, because this teaches the child falsehood.” (BT Succah 46b)
The Talmud (BT Yevamot 63a) tells a story about a Sage named Rav, whose wife would constantly mess with him, and it drove him crazy. If he asked her to make lentils for dinner, she would make peas. If he asked for peas, she would cook lentils.
When their son Chiyya got older, Rav would send him into the kitchen to pass along his requests for dinner. Chiyya, a bright child, would switch the requests around. If his father asked for lentils, he would tell his mother that he wanted peas, and she would then cook lentils, and vice versa. That way, Rav got exactly what he wanted for dinner every night, and his parents’ fighting improved.
This went on for some time, until one day, Rav commented to his son, “Your mother has gotten better.”
Chiyya then confessed that he had been switching the messages around.
Rav was impressed with his son’s wisdom, acknowledging the popular saying “From your own children you learn reason.” Nevertheless, he recalled the Bible’s warnings about dishonesty, and told Chiyya not to lie anymore. Rav recognized that his parental obligation to teach truthfulness to his son overrode any short-term benefit this little white lie may have had. He and his wife would have to deal with their issues on their own.
Jewish law emphatically emphasizes the importance of truth-telling in certain areas. When it comes to business, for example, both business owners and customers must be honest at all times.
However, our tradition does not hold truth-telling to be an absolute. There are circumstances in which it might be appropriate, or possibly even necessary, to say something that is not true.
The Talmud (BT Yevamot 65b) teaches that one may tell a lie in the interests of peace. Various examples are given. The question is asked regarding what one should say to an ugly bride on her wedding day. Beit Shammai insists that one must always tell the truth, while Beit Hillel says that we must praise her as beautiful and full of grace. Our tradition fallows Beit Hillel.
Other examples are given about when it is permissible to lie, including when life is in danger and when it would bring about peace. Husbands and wives are not supposed to tell the truth to others about what goes on in the bedroom. A person who is particularly knowledgeable on a subject should not claim to be an expert. To do so would be immodest, or could lead to embarrassment if he is then asked a question that he cannot answer. Finally, a person who has been graciously hosted is not supposed to go around telling people about it, because it could lead to disreputable individuals calling upon the wealthy host.
It would appear that our tradition does not define truth and lies as a straightforward reporting of factually accurate or inaccurate information.
Truth, considered to be one of the pillars of the world, is more complicated. In Michtav M’Eliyahu (Vol. I, p. 94) Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler explains: We had better define truth as that which is conducive to good and which conforms with the Will of the Creator, and falsehood as that which furthers the scheme of the yetzer harah, the power of evil in the world.
When the Torah urges us to distance ourselves from lying words, it is really setting an ideal for us to build families and communities that are rooted in honesty. While little white lies may sometimes be called for, they do take their toll on us.
As the Talmud states (BT Sanhedrin 89b), “this is the punishment of the liar, that even if he speaks the truth – nobody listens to him.”
Our tradition recognizes that reality is complicated, and that absolutes are often unrealistic. Nevertheless, we can imagine what a community built on truth looks like, and we can strive to create it.