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January 1, 2015 10:51 am

When is it Permitted to Tell a Lie?

avatar by Jonathan Sacks

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A Torah scroll. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

After the death of Jacob, Joseph’s brothers were afraid. Years earlier, when he had revealed his true identity to them, he appeared to have forgiven them for selling him as a slave. That was the theme of last week’s essay.

Yet the brothers were not wholly reassured. Maybe Joseph did not mean what he said. Perhaps he still harboured resentment. Might the only reason he had not yet taken revenge be his respect for Jacob. There was a convention in those days that there was to be no settling of scores between siblings in the lifetime of the father. We know this from an earlier episode. After Jacob had taken his brother’s blessing, Esau says, “The days of mourning for my father are near; then I will kill my brother Jacob” (Gen. 27: 41). So the brothers come before Joseph and say:

“Your father left these instructions before he died:  ‘This is what you are to say to Joseph: I ask you to forgive your brothers the sins and the wrongs they committed in treating you so badly.’ Now please forgive the sins of the servants of the God of your father.” When their message came to him, Joseph wept. (Gen. 50: 16-17)

The text makes it as plain as possible that the story they told Joseph was a lie. If Jacob had really said those words he would have said them to Joseph himself, not to the brothers. The time to have done so was on his deathbed in the previous chapter. The brothers’ tale was a “white lie.” Its primary aim was not to deceive but to ease a potentially explosive situation. Perhaps that is why Joseph wept, understanding that his brothers still thought him capable of revenge.

The sages derived a principle from this text. Mutar le-shanot mipnei ha-shalom: “It is permitted to tell an untruth (literally, “to change” the facts) for the sake of peace.” A white lie is permitted in Jewish law.

This is not the only place where the sages invoked this principle. They even attributed it to God himself. When the angels came to visit Abraham to tell him and Sarah that they were about to have a child, “Sarah laughed to herself as she thought, ‘After I am worn out and my lord is old, will I now have this pleasure?'” God then asked Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Will I really have a child, now that I am old?'” (Gen. 18: 12-13).

God did not mention that Sarah believed that not only was she too old to have a child. So was Abraham (this turned out to be quite untrue: Abraham had six more children after Sarah’s death). The sages inferred that God did not mention it because he did not want there to be bad feeling between husband and wife. Here too the sages said: it is permitted to change for the sake of peace.

It is clear that the sages needed both episodes to establish the principle. Had we only known about the Sarah case, we could not infer that it is permitted to tell a white lie. God did not tell a white lie about Sarah. He merely did not tell Abraham the whole truth.

Had we only known about the case of Joseph’s brothers, we could not have inferred that what they did was permitted. Perhaps it was forbidden, and that is why Joseph wept. The fact that God himself had done something similar is what led the sages to say that the brothers were justified.

What is at stake here is an important feature of the moral life, despite the fact that we seem to be speaking of no more than social niceties: tact. The late Sir Isaiah Berlin pointed out that not all values coexist in a kind of platonic harmony. His favourite example was freedom and equality. You can have a free economy but the result will be inequality. You can have economic equality – communism, but the result will be a loss of freedom. In the world as currently configured, moral conflict is unavoidable.

This was an important fact, though one about which Judaism seems never to have been in doubt. There is, for example, a powerful moment in Tanakh when King David’s son Absalom mounts a coup d’etat against his father. David was forced to flee. Eventually there was a battle between Absalom’s troops and David’s. Absalom, who was handsome and had fine hair, was caught by it when it became entangled in the branches of a tree. Left handing there, Joab, captain of David’s army, killed him.

When David heard the news he was overcome with grief: “The king was shaken. He went up to the room over the gateway and wept. As he went, he said: ‘O my son Absalom! My son, my son Absalom! If only I had died instead of you—O Absalom, my son, my son!'” (2 Samuel 18: 33). Joab is brutal in his words to the king: “Today you have humiliated all your men, who have just saved your life … You love those who hate you and hate those who love you … Now go out and encourage your men” (2 Sam. 19: 6-8). David’s grief at the loss of his son conflicts with his responsibilities as head of state and his loyalty to the troops who have saved his life. Which comes first: his duties as a father or as a king?

The existence of conflicting values means that the kind of morality we adopt and society we create depend not only on the values we embrace but also on the way we prioritise them. Prioritizing equality over freedom creates one kind of society – Soviet communism for example. Prioritising freedom over equality leads to market economics. People in both societies may value the same things but they rank them differently in the scale of values, and thus how they choose when the two conflict.

That is what is at stake in the stories of Sarah and Joseph’s brothers. Truth and peace are both values, but which do we choose when they conflict? Not everyone among the rabbinic sages agreed.

There is, for example, a famous argument between the schools of Hillel and Shammai as to what to say about the bride at a wedding. The custom was to say that “The bride is beautiful and graceful.” Members of the school of Shammai, however, were not prepared to say so if, in their eyes, the bride was not beautiful and graceful. For them the supreme value was the Torah’s insistence on truth: “Keep far from falsehood” (Ex. 23: 7).

The school of Hillel did not accept this. Who was to judge whether the bride was beautiful and graceful? Surely the bridegroom himself. So to praise the bride was not making an objective statement that could be tested empirically. It was simply endorsing the bridegroom’s choice. It was a way of celebrating the couple’s happiness.

Courtesies are often like this. Telling someone how much you like the gift they have brought, even if you don’t, or saying to someone, “How lovely to see you” when you were hoping to avoid them, is more like good manners than an attempt to deceive. We all know this, and thus no harm is done, as it would be if we were to tell a lie when substantive interests are at stake.

More fundamental and philosophical is an important Midrash about a conversation between God and the angels as to whether human beings should be created at all:

Rabbi Shimon said: When God was about to create Adam, the ministering angels split into contending groups. Some said, ‘Let him be created.’ Others said, ‘Let him not be created.’ That is why it is written: ‘Mercy and truth collided, righteousness and peace clashed’ (Psalms 85:11).

Mercy said, ‘Let him be created, because he will do merciful deeds.’

Truth said, ‘Let him not be created, for he will be full of falsehood.’

Righteousness said, ‘Let him be created, for he will do righteous deeds.’

Peace said, ‘Let him not be created, for he will never cease quarrelling.’

What did the Holy One, blessed be He, do? He took truth and threw it to the ground.

The angels said, ‘Sovereign of the universe, why do You do thus to Your own seal, truth? Let truth arise from the ground.’

Thus it is written, ‘Let truth spring up from the earth’ (Psalms 85:12).

This is a challenging text. What exactly were the angels saying? What does it mean to say that “God took truth and threw it to the ground?” And what happened to the claim made by the angel of Peace that humans “will never cease quarrelling”?

I interpret it as meaning that humans are destined to conflict so long as contending groups each claim to have a monopoly of the truth. The only way they will learn to live at peace is by realizing that they, finite as all humans are, will never in this life achieve truth as it is in Heaven. For us, truth is always partial, fragmentary, the view from somewhere and not, as philosophers sometimes say, “the view from nowhere.”

This deep insight is, I believe, the reason why the Torah is multi-perspectival, why Tanakh contains so many different kinds of voices, why Mishnah and Gemarra are structured around argument, and why Midrash is built on the premise that there are “seventy faces” to Torah. No other civilization I know has had so subtle and complex an understanding of the nature of truth.

Nor has any other so valued peace. Judaism is not and never was pacifist. National self-defence sometimes requires war. But Isaiah and Micah were the first visionaries of a world in which “nation shall not lift up sword against nation.” Isaiah is the poet laureate of peace.

Given the choice, when it came to interpersonal relations the sages valued peace over truth, not least because truth can flourish in peace while it is often the first casualty in war. So the brothers were not wrong to tell Joseph a white lie for the sake of peace within the family. It reminded them all of the deeper truth that not only was their human father, now dead, but also their heavenly Father, eternally alive, wanted the people of the covenant to be at peace – for how can Jews be at peace with the world if they are not at peace with themselves?

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  • victoria brandeis

    this man….is not worth the words he has spoken……ask him why Rabbi Dunner is no longer here…ask him about the Royals and Jeudism….if anything reads simple it has no value….no room to dig or scratch…..

    Sacks is merely placing his foot and mouth in the arms of evil……

  • Cynthia

    “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor”….
    The ninth commandment is very clear that to lie is a transgression of the law. I view this to be a black and white issue: To lie is not an option

  • charlie johnson

    TRUST. Eve was walking in the garden one day.She ran into the worlds first con man.The con man is one who gains your confidence .He is very clever and very cunning.He was the first one to tell the human that god lies.That one need not believe in god.Even a mortal can become god.This was the tree of knowledge that the educators speak of.My government is opposed to god being taught in any school.Well.Except the god of the atheist who promoted a theory that man evolved from a lower form of life.

  • charlie johnson

    I wish that in my early life this man had written and entire book on these kinds of things because it explains the questions I put away in life long ago with no answer nor understanding.

  • Julian Clovelley

    I find these articles in Algemeiner very interesting but I often find – looking from a vantage point outside of Judaism, that I cannot agree with some of the interpretations I see, and therefore the conclusions drawn from what is a mythology also common to Christianity, my own birth religion

    Surely the whole point of this passage is that Joseph is well aware that his brothers are lying but he chooses to accept the falsehood because it accords with his own feelings and intentions? Confronted with the choice of accepting or rejecting the lie he accepts it because it can be used to reassure his brothers that his intention is to live in peace with them. The falsehood is used entirely to enhance trust and brotherhood, to forgive guilt. But it is consciously used by both parties – The joint promotion of the falsehood is the key to its nature. Joseph has already expressed forgiveness directly to his brothers. The joint falsehood is about mutual trust. I don’t think there is any real suggestion that Joseph believed it for one moment. The falsehood he accepts and promotes is used only to display the honesty of his character in his earlier statements to his father and his brothers. He loves his expanding family

    It is therefore in my opinion not a white lie, rather it is more of a chosen starting point for peace and reconciliation, based on the undoubted will of the missing third party, the father. A mechanism has been found to enforce trust – an unalterable accepted command that is a “joint construction” between the parties. That reality is openly displayed by the published account.

    In the Abraham story it is legitimate for only Sarah’s infertility to be considered and mentioned since Sarah is the one to have the child. The fertility of Abraham is irrelevant. The sages infer too much and if the intention is to create the justification for white lying it is quite wrong in principle.

    I find this important because if you apply the white lie principle you can say anything so long as you assure YOURSELF its motivation is “honourable.” This permits a lie told for political. ideological or territorial purposes. That it is an act of appalling arrogance. One asks legitimately “were the sages lying”? – If they say you can then there can also be no truth in their words – ever

    An ideological “lie” appears in this article: “Prioritizing equality over freedom creates one kind of society – Soviet communism for example. Prioritising freedom over equality leads to market economics.” This is stated as fact and not opinion.

    Not so – Soviet Communism possessed neither freedom nor equality. Stalin created a protected but heavily controlled and often betrayed elite, and a military, police and secret police repressed majority, millions of whom were murdered. On the other hand market economics, in practice, do not prioritise freedom – they prioritise class structures and maintain them through the use of repression and austerity – a market economy cannot function where freedom is universal. It is the tragedy of both political systems that in practice they result in de facto Fascism.

    My concern however comes home a little closer. I have found myself confronted in Algemeiner with an article I believe to be entirely falsely constructed – which being the article that claims a BDS campaigner gave a Nazi salute outside a shop he was picketing. This he immediately and credibly denied online and in direct response to those claiming he had – and who are misrepresenting, it might seem, a photo of him giving a cheery wave from about twenty feet distance (visible in the uncropped photo). Algemeiner neither corrected the article (perhaps by withdrawing it) nor presented the balancing view of the incident. The Zionist version was taken on trust and unquestioned

    Is Zionism permitted to lie when it believes its cause to be honourable? Is Algemeiner morally permitted to publish facts without thoroughly checking if they have been presented in a balanced fashion? – Are international journalistic standards to be suspended when elements of a particular media organ may wish to press their particular agenda – which may even be in conflict with the organs normal editorial policy?

    This article about lying worries me, because there is so much about the present Middle East situation and about the “identity” of the “peoples” involved that is highly questionable in the form in which they are presented and assumed. It also worries me when items of political difference are universally represented as racism or antisemitism – as if one ethnic group is above such accusation

    I put it to you that a major part of the problems of the Middle East is that so many political, historical, ideological, religious, identity, and even moral lies are being told, so many false identities promoted – so much historical reality being deceptively denied

    I’d like to make a suggestion here – a new principle – “There can be no peace brought about or perpetuated in an atmosphere of lies”. In a political situation there are no “white lies”. There is honesty, fair dealing, open agendas and truth – or there is dishonesty, hidden agendas and lies. The difference between the two is also one of outcome, negotiated and compassionate peace leading to reconciliation – or unending conflict, mistrust and hatred

    Watch those lies – and perhaps refute the sages. They were quite wrong – presuming of course their arguments are accurately presented here. Or (asked with tongue firmly in cheek) is the article a “white lie”

    This article taught me a lot – But I am not sure it was the lesson intended. I am left wondering whose words to trust.