Jewish Journal


October 9, 2009

The Emet Factor: Blatant Lies and Brutal Honesty


Lying Thermometer (Jinsider.com)

Lying Thermometer (Jinsider.com)

There is something especially disturbing about pathological lying. To look someone in the eye and know they are telling a blatant falsehood breaks the social structures that make our society work. So when Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sat down with Larry King recently, looked him in the eye, and said he had “academic ques-tions” about the existence of the Holocaust, it was very difficult not to get angry.

Yet while Ahmadinejad may represent absolute un-truth, absolute truth isn’t always the perfect answer. Ricky Gervais’ new film, “The Invention of Lying” – about a world where lying doesn’t exist – in-vestigates that point. Brutal honesty can be brutal, and not all lies are toxic. Some can even be civil and altruistic.

Deception is all around us – from government spin to advertising to social relationships based on little white lies. How can we best sort the acceptable from the unacceptable? To put this in perspective, JIn-sider’s own “Truthers” created the Emet-ometer (see image) to better understand the black, white and gray of truth in our world.

Rabbi Telushkin: Insights from Jewish Wisdom

There are many acts prohibited in the Torah: for example, we are forbidden to steal or cheat (Leviticus 19:11), commit adultery (Exodus 20:13), or take advan-tage of the blind (Leviticus 19:14). But falsehood is the only sin that the Torah commands people to avoid actively: “Stay far away from falsehood” (Exodus 23:7). Having said that, Jewish law is not absolutist on this issue, and if you look at the Bible and the Talmud, you can find a number of instances in which Jewish laws permit one to be untruthful. Here are a few examples:

Most obviously, you are permitted to lie to save a life, your own or somebody else’s. The midwives in Exodus who saved the Israelite ba-bies from Pharaoh’s murderous decree lie to Pharaoh, and make him think they wanted to carry out his order; only the Israelite women gave birth too quickly. The Bible makes it clear God regarded them as righteous, heroic and deserving of reward (Exodus 1:15-22). It is also permitted to lie to robbers. The Mishnah rules that a farmer may vow to robbers that the material or produce they are demanding from him “belongs to the royal house, even if it does not” in order to make them afraid to take it (Nedarim 3:4).

It is permitted to speak untruthfully to avoid gratuitously hurting a person’s feelings. The Talmud records a debate between the Schools of Hillel and Shammai over the words to be sung at a wedding. The School of Hillel rules that all brides are to be described as beautiful and graceful, while the School of Shammai forbids doing so, except if the bride truly is beautiful (Ketubot 16b-17a). The Shulchan Aruch rules in accordance with the House of Hillel—every bride is to be described as beautiful, “even if she is not…” (Even Ha-Ezer 65:1). In English, as noted earlier, we have the expression “to be brutally hon-est.” If being honest means that you have to be “brutal,” then you should reconsider your words.

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin is the author of “A Code of Jewish Ethics:  Vol. 1: You Shall be Holy” from which the above material is drawn. Send honest reactions to .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

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