Rabbi Richard Jacobi
Rabbi at Woodford Liberal Synagogue & Co-chair of Liberal Judaism’s Rabbinic Conference
When God tells Abraham to sacrifice his son, in the Torah portion for Rosh Hashanah, is God lying? When Jacob deceives and lies to his father Isaac, in stealing his brother’s blessing, why isn’t he punished? What about the way Joseph deceived his siblings in Egypt?
Our Torah, when you stop and think about it, is ambivalent about lying.
When the schools of Hillel and Shammai argued about the mitzvah to ‘praise the bride’, the view that we should praise every bride’s beauty won out, even though there was an acceptance that this would not hold to the highest standard of truth telling. Rabbinic literature accepted the lies involved in being diplomatic in real-life situations.
In his fascinating book, Born Liars, Ian Leslie argues that the ability to lie was essential to the development of homo sapiens. It is a survival technique and it is a skill that all successful people have developed and refined. Yes, we should tell the truth wherever and whenever we can. But the key is the motivation we have when we lie, which should be for the greater good.
Let’s not try to get cleverer at telling lies. Instead, let’s aim to be more principled – lies are not black and white, bad or good. Lying is a complex matter, and we need to be honest with ourselves, so that we never tell lies to gain unfair advantage or to cause hurt to another person. If we have to lie, let us do this from compassion, love and caring, so that even our lies serve to help make the world a better place.
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