Veracity or Virtue?
Is honesty always the best policy?
Can falsehood ever be a G-dly path?
Truth is considered a primary moral virtue in many ethical systems. The Torah places great value on Truth in many places and ways. The Torah also permits significant deviations from truth as a matter of practice. Does this represent a conflict of the pragmatic and the ideal to which we surrender the ideal? Alternatively, perhaps, is there a unified theory extant to resolve these contradictions?
“The Seal of the Blessed Holy One is Truth”. This oft-quoted statement is found in several places by Chazal . “Honesty is always the best policy” is a folk truism. Michel Montaigne (the 17th century French essayist) writes in his Essays “That as the only thing that bonds people together is words falsehood strikes at the heart of any connection among Humans”.
The Ohr Hachayim, in his first piece of commentary on Beraishit, points out that the account of creation allows several fundamental errors to arise if we are not familiar with the subtleties of the meaning of the first word of the Torah “Beraishit”. All matter and energy in the universe were created simultaneously as a “beginning”.
If one does not consider this, all the rest of the story of creation which talks about the unfolding of detail could be taken to mean that the stuff of the universe was pre-existing. This is a profound heresy from a Judaic point of view. The Ohr Hachayim says that in spite of the danger of confusion, the Torah had to be written in this way because a true account must be given. It would seem then, that in the spirit of Imatatio Dei, we would need to take great pains and make great sacrifices for the truth, just as G-d does. This is my conclusion, not the Ohr Hachayim’s.
Of course, there exits the endless debate among moral philosophers, in theory, and in our own personal experience as to whether there are any virtues that are of absolute and immutable value.
In our case, from a Judaic perspective, does Truth “trump” all other moral values? Are there any situations that demand or even permit the use of falsehood?
If we look within the parameters of Halacha, Jewish Law, for the concretization of this idea, we indeed find situations in which falsehood is accepted behavior and sometimes an ideal behavior.
In Tractate Ketubot, we find an argument between Bet Shamai and Bet Hillel concerning what should be said about a bride. Bet Shamai rules that one may say nothing that is not true in praise.
Bet Hillel makes a “Lake Woebegone” ruling - we must say that every bride is beautiful and graceful. The Talmud extends this to someone who asks you an opinion about a purchase you have made, that where there is no option of return, you should praise it even if it was a poor deal.
In Tractate Bava Metziah, the Talmud rules that one may dissemble about questions that would reveal details of one’s intimate life, ones financial resources (to avoid jealousy or crime) and the present locus of ones studies (to avoid being drawn into answering questions that the scholar may not feel fully prepared for).
There are several references in various Midrashim to Aaron the High Priest using subterfuge to bring peace between aggrieved parties. Cleverly, he would tell each one that the other was saying “I would love to make things up with X, but fear rejection of my overtures” thereby causing both to meet halfway and seek reconciliation
Any lie that brings peace such as responding to a request for information about a derogatory comment made by A about B –one may deny to B A’s statements.
In discussing these issues in his Code (O.C. 155), Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi makes a distinction between dissembling about the past, which is permitted to bring peace and making a false promise about the future, which is forbidden under all circumstances, even to bring peace.
The only exception to this would be to save a life (though the text does not discuss this here, we have proof for this premise from other sources).
What concepts underlie these disparate rulings?
There is an intriguing question raised by a very famous statement in chapter six of Pirkei Avot “All that the Blessed Holy One created was created for His Kavod”. Kavod is commonly translated as glory but actually means radiant, an experience that creates appreciation of the source of that experience. We honor our parents (the Torah uses “Kavod” for this precept) because we experience the “radiation” of the fact that we owe them our very being. We honor the scholars of Torah because we experience the shining forth of the G-dly knowledge we need and appreciate this.
Therefore, the idea that all creation exists for the “Kavod” of G-d means that we find in everything G-d’s presence in a positive manner that excites our appreciation.
Everything means not just objects, but also any emotional, mental, possibility or spiritual reality in the Cosmos.
Since human violence and falsehood, for example, exist in both reality and potentiality, there must be a way in which we express these qualities as positive expressions of G-dliness.
The fundamental challenge of the aforementioned premise is the difficulty of conceiving a positive and affirmative use of a negation. Falsehood is a negation of reality- it is the obfuscation of Truth. However, a double negative is a positive. If we use a negation to negate another negation we have revealed the positive.
Here is a parable to illuminate this idea. The atmosphere distorts the light from distant stars reaching the Earth. In order for an earthbound telescope to see the stars clearly, we create (mechanically by manipulating the optics, or by distorting the digital output of the image) a distortion that distorts the distorted light back to its pristine deep-space image. We attain clarity by the “double negative”.
This principle applies in our personal struggles that emerge from the free will discussed earlier. We must use those qualities that conceal our G-dly nature to break the concealment in others and ourselves. “The Tree is chopped down by an axe handle made of it” as the Midrash states in several places. Negativity exists to challenge us to find G-d on our own. We use the same negation that caused us to lose sight of G-d to find G-dliness.
There is no permissible falsehood, only restorative distortion. The sum of the equation must be truth.
Let us look at each case in the light of this concept:
In truth if we saw the essence of every human being, the creative power of G-d that sustains them, we would only see beauty in every human body. This is no less an extension of G-d’s essence than the Soul, just more concealed, as discussed extensively in Likutei Sichot in numerous loci.
Because we have false assumptions about beauty based on the concealment of the G-dly, we need to protect the bride with a statement that is untrue only from a false perspective. Distort the distortion afforded by the crudity of society’s premises and you have revelatory truth. Falsehood correctly used reveals ultimate truth which is the Seal of G-d. It is no longer falsehood.
Privacy and Scholarly pursuit:
G-d created boundaries in the world to focus our energies. The intimate revealed is the precious spilled into the gutter. A scholar forced to answer unprepared can simply give a false answer. We are protecting the proper order of things from inevitable distortion by the use of a countervailing distortion.
Aaron and the Enemies: We only hate each other because we fail to see our common oneness, the unitary source in G-d’s being. Deep down, our selves yearn to be reunited with each other. Aaron’s falsehood removes concealment and reveals the more profound truth, that they indeed seek reconciliation. We have distorted the atmosphere of hate and removed its distortion thereby restoring the “Seal” of G-d’s presence.
Hiding Slander: Speech was created to reveal G-dliness and bring people together. If we allow slander to perpetuate, we create a false outcome. The result is that people are driven apart. The lie allows the disruptive force to die, thereby curing one negation with another.
Peace and False promises
Here the proof of our assertion emerges. Peace is G-dly as it expresses the indivisibility that hallmarks that which reflects G-d. To overcome threats to peace, a denial of G-d’s oneness, we may use the falsehood to conceal and negate this choice. This is an expression of Kavod; a falsehood that fills the purpose of allowing the Divine to be revealed. This is the purpose, the positive, and Kavod purpose of falsehood.
However, a false promise would be the creation of a new reality in the future. It is not distorting a distorted image back to reality. It is creating a new, unbalanced distortion in anticipation of a conflict. Since the sum of a false promise is – falsehood +0 = falsehood (we are creating a new falsehood and there is no countervailing distortion to justify it, hence the present situation is one of falsehood and distortion) we may not create a new concealment of G-dliness to avoid a future problem.
We need to find ways to ensure that the wrong choice and exercise of free will that creates the future problem never happens, always seeking righteousness first. As King David says in Psalms “With the Pure be Pure and with the Crooked- Twisted”. We may only twist back the bent, not create negativity in anticipation of future evil.
However, this only introduces the problem. There are obviously times where it is theologically correct to dissemble, as a hiding of truth reveals a deeper truth.
The extensive discussions on bribery in Judaic Ethical literature from the Torah through the Talmud up to our own times point out that any time we have a bias in favor of an individual created by kinship or receiving benefit from that person our minds are not capable of being objective any longer.
That being the case, there is no person we are more biased to than our own selves. This creates a huge problem in practically applying our earlier thesis. It is not always so simple to define where the deepest veracity resides. Since it is always easier (at first) to tell an easy falsehood, rather than a painful truth, we are bribed by our psyches to convince ourselves that a convenient lie is for a greater truth.
This is the problem in general with translating elegant concepts of Judaic thought into practical everyday behavior.
Since truth is so fundamental to Judaism, we need a practical litmus test, so we never engage in a falsehood that is indeed a falsehood. I would like to focus on another aspect of the “laws of Lying” shared by all the cases:
We permitted to lie (unless we are dealing with severe danger TO LIFE LIMB AND PROPERTY) only for the sake of others. In the case of our own needs, we are far too likely to misjudge in our own favor, as we are inexorably biased against the uncomfortable when dealing with ourselves. So, let us go trough our cases once again:
The Bride: Clearly we are protecting an other in this case
Privacy and Scholarly pursuit: Here we are protecting a spouse the first case, as all intimate details involve two people and the Jewish people from mispronounced Halachic decisions on the other hand – as being forced to rule on a subject the scholar is studying before he/she is ready could cause a hasty and untrue answer.
Aaron and the Enemies: Aaron used this method as a disinterested third party, not as a party in any of these issues
Hiding Slander: Stopping slander protects the whole community from fragmentation.
False Promises as indicated in the Shulchan Aruch Harav (O.C. 155) are dealing with promises made by me to help myself. Indeed, The Talmud writes that if A is choking B in the street because he is angry that a debt is not being paid and C offers to pay to stop the assault, C has no subsequent liability to pay. Though this is not meant by C to be false, the result is the same by fiat of law.
I believe the following summation represents a solid ethical foundation on which to govern one’s use of dissimilitude.
The restoring of Truth in the larger context by corrective distortion is permitted- if…
The use of distortion is for a case in which there is no personal gain, direct emotional benefit to oneself.
All of the above, though addressing the practicalities of our subject and its deeper spiritual and Judaic implications leave us with an interesting problem: Why indeed? Granted that we should restore the truth in the broader sense by selective dissimulation, why is the cosmos set up in such a way to demand this process?
Could not a world have been created in which we can get through life by simply telling the truth? After all, truth is clearly virtuous and needs no complex agonizing over?
To understand this we need to understand that falsehood only exists in the context of truth. We can conceal a truth by a falsehood, but we cannot tell a falsehood about an issue which has no countervailing truth.
The definition of Falsehood is negation- it isn’t the truth of the matter, the matter being already established.
This is the entire nature of creation, which is a combination of the revelation of G-d’s creative power and the concealment of that power in such a way that we can establish san in dependent identity of self.
The concealment is necessary if we are to have meaning and choice as individuals. Individuation and free choice are the essential characteristics of Judaism –the each one of us independently choose to discover the G- dly nature of existence in our own experience.
This concealment is a real expression of G-ds being no less than the revelation as they equally contribute to G-d’s p\purposes in Creation. We experience the concealment as falsehood as we cannot perceive G-d, whom we know to be a reality that should, by rights, be perceived. We fail to realize that that perceived absence is in itself an expression of G-d’s essence, too. In order to remind ourselves of this reality G-d puts us in places we are forced to use concealment and falsehood as tools for allowing G-d’s presence through, to illuminate as earlier in the parable of the Telescope.
In truth all of physical life is ht up in this process. Our physical actions are false –we eat to not to eat but to extract the G-dly energy within the food that sustains us./ We have an Evil inclination, not follow it but to negate it. WE attaint the sublime state of Shabbat by not doing what we are perfectly capable of. These are all concealments or negations of what is and force us to Find G-d in negation.
However in finding Good in Negation we are faced with the challenge of making sure that we are not crossing a line into pure negation. In the context of Truth, this bright line is immediacy.
If you cannot see an immediate “deeper truth” e.g. making peace now but seek to improve an image for future peacemaking –you have crossed that line. Where there is no clear immediate purpose to falsehood as outlined in Halachah we may never lie. We may not protect ourselves from owning up to a wrongdoing by untruth (as opposed to talking about a personal innocuous item) Comfort of our psyche is not a “greater truth”. Where we benefit form the negation we can simply never know of there is good lying within it.
I’ll conclude by with a simple maxim “if it feels good (to lie) don’t. We must experience profound pain in dissembling. There is a “greater good” in a root canal but if still hurts.
Truth hurts, and the deeper the truth lies, the more it hurts to extract it.
Is it worth it? That’s what we are here for.