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Is it okay to lie?

April 23rd, 2015 Posted by Ask the Rabbi 1 comment

Question:

I would like to know the ancient Jewish wisdom on lying. Although it is forbidden it seems to be condoned at times in the Bible, such as the stories of Rahab and the Jewish midwives in Egypt.
 
Could it be that it is permissible where it is for the greater good rather than for harming another or for one’s own selfish gain?
 
Thank you.

∼ Marcus W.

Answer:

Dear Marcus,

A number of years ago, we had a Thought Tool on this topic that caused quite a commotion. It is possible that this is one of the areas where Judaism and at least some streams of Christianity differ.

In Corrie ten Boom’s book, The Hiding Place, she tells of her brother’s family who were hiding Jews. When the Nazis suspected them and asked if they were hiding anyone, the sister-in-law recalls not being able to lie, as a good Christian. (We must note that her sheltering of Jews was an act of her Christianity as well.)  Miraculously, her honest answer so confused the Nazis that they assumed she was joking and left.

Jewish thought, on the other hand, not only allows, but demands lying, if doing so will save a life. Such is the case of Rahab that you mention in the book of Joshua.

This isn’t to say that we quite agree with your phraseology, “where it is for the greater good rather than for harming another or for one’s own selfish gain.” Unfortunately, terrible things are done by those who incorrectly convince themselves that they are doing things “for the greater good.” Such a concept would allow almost all of our consciences to persuade most of us to lie rather frequently.

In reality we are obliged to be truthful in the overwhelming majority of our life circumstances.  In rare and specially defined situations, ancient Jewish wisdom explains when one may tell a lie; these are severely limited occasions. Interestingly, while one such exception is to save a life, another is in unique situations when it is necessary in order to keep peace between a husband and wife. This doesn’t reflect on a lack of the importance of  truth, but rather on the great importance that God places on marriage.

See how in Genesis 18:12 Sarah chuckles at the thought of her and Abraham having a child seeing “as my husband is too old.”  However, when God asks Abraham why his wife laughed saying “she’s too old” He kept the peace between husband and wife by telling Abraham that Sarah had considered herself too old even though in actuality she had been casting aspersions on her husband’s virility.

In summation, telling the truth is required in almost all times and places, but on rare occasions there are other virtues that supersede that one.

Honestly speaking,

Rabbi Daniel and Susan Lapin

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One comment

Micah Magill says:

Dear Rabbi Lapin and Susan Lapin,

Actually, in Genesis 18:12, even the Orthodox Jewish Bible says this:

12 Therefore Sarah laughed [titzchak, sounds like Yitzchak] within herself, saying, After I am grown old shall I have pleasure, adoni being old also?

So, Sarah actually said both: That she was too old and her husband was as well. Therefore God did not tell Abraham a lie (or even a ‘white lie’) to ‘keep the peace’ between them. He’s God. He does not lie.

Respectfully,

Micah

P.S. Your reference to Corrie ten Boom’s ‘The Hiding Place’ was a great example of a Christian person telling the truth (to a Nazi no less) and God blessing her for it by causing him not to believe her anyway. God honors obedience to his Commandments.

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