The Avodah Blog

Is Lying Ever Justified? Devar Torah for Parashat Toledot

Rabbi Aryeh Bernstein Avodah, 5781

It seems intuitive that truthfulness should be paramount in religious life and in fact, the Torah teaches bluntly in the civil code, “From a lying word stay far away” (Exodus/Sh’mot 23:7). This mitzvah is directed to judges; in our own world, we can relate all too easily with the sense of public crisis when judicial or governmental authorities lie. However, Rabbinic tradition understands this mitzvah to apply to the general public, as well (eg, Midrash Mekhilta of Rabbi Yishma‘el on the verse). Against the backdrop of the Torah’s concern for honesty, we face a problem in this week’s parashah: our two ancestral protagonists, Rivka and her favorite son, Ya‘akov, intentionally deceive their spouse/father, Yitzhak, taking advantage of his vulnerability as a blind person to dupe him into giving Ya‘akov the favored blessing intended for his older twin brother ‘Esav (Bereshit/Genesis 27).

It’s not necessarily a problem for Biblical “heroes” to do bad things; the Tanakh (Bible) is a literarily rich work with complex characters who make mistakes. The medieval sage Ramban even, famously, says that slavery in Egypt was a punishment for Avram exposing his wife Sarai to sexual abuse by telling the Egyptian king that she was his sister (comment to Bereishit/Genesis 12:10). However, there are some literary cues in the Rivka-Ya‘akov story suggesting that their deception should be seen as justified. For one thing, God told Rivka during her difficult pregnancy that the elder twin would end up subordinate to the younger (Bereishit/Genesis 25:23). For whatever Divine reason, Ya‘akov is supposed to get that blessing; we can’t address the dishonesty without addressing what made Yitzhak, from the very beginning (ibid., 25:28), completely miss the Divine message and what barriers prevented Rivka from communicating with him or prevented him from hearing her. Furthermore, halakhah, like other legal systems, recognizes that a transaction carried out under false pretenses (in Hebrew, a “mekah ta‘ut) is void; the irreversibility of Ya‘akov’s blessing suggests that the deception here was righting some other wrong, and therefore valid.

Moreover, the language and structure of this story mirror another tale of deception, the story of the snake enticing Havah (aka, Eve) to eat from the forbidden fruit of the garden, which she and Adam do, earning them expulsion from ‘Eden (ibid., 2:25-3:24). Adam and Havah were naked. As a result of the snake’s deception, they violate God’s word through eating and become aware, such that they could no longer bear to be naked, forever-after wearing clothing. Here, Rivka has Ya‘akov put on ‘Esav’s clothing in order to deceive his father, clouding his awareness as to his identity, in order to feed him food and receive a blessing, in order to fulfill God’s word. The snake story is explicitly a story of sin and punishment; the Rivka story is its mirror image, suggesting an undoing or repair of that previous wrongdoing. 

I have lots of theories as to why Rivka couldn’t communicate with Yitzhak, but let’s bracket them and just consider: what if she knew something to be true, but Yitzhak held power and was corrupting that truth, refusing to accept her just testimony? When the reigning regime is falsehood, do the same rules of truth apply to those with less power? When they go low, is it just to go high? I would like to claim gently and carefully that the Torah’s requirements of truthfulness are not absolute, but serve a larger goal of preventing hurt and abuse. There may be situations in which straying from a local truth can be the best way to accomplish the larger truth.

Consider a few examples in which halakhah (Jewish law) allows or requires us to stray from truth. Generally, deception or mental fraud (“geneivat da‘at”), is forbidden, such as doing or saying anything to deceive another person into thinking that you did something for them if, in fact, you didn’t do it. Don’t take credit for things you didn’t do, creating a sense of indebtedness. For example, if I happen to run into you on the street, I can’t lie and tell you that I was coming specifically to see you. However, the Talmud (Hullin 94b) tells a piquant story of rabbis running into each other, the upshot of which is that if I unnecessarily assume that you came specifically to see me, you shouldn’t burst my bubble. I misled myself in order to feel good and you shouldn’t correct me.

There is a bruising dispute among 2nd century Rabbis as to whether arbitration in monetary disputes is preferable to a court decision, or an absolute perversion of justice: if I say you owe me $1,000 and you say you don’t, and an arbitrator brings us to settle for a $300 payment, we have definitely done falsehood; no one thinks you actually owed me $300. Nevertheless, halakhah rules that arbitration is preferable, if the parties are willing to work out a settlement instead of going to court (Shulhan Arukh Hoshen Mishpat 12:2). 

More broadly, the Talmud teaches elsewhere (Yevamot 65b), that one is permitted to change the truth for the sake of peace, citing Yoseph’s brothers’ white lie (Bereishit/Genesis 50:16-17). Fearing that the only reason Yoseph has been kind to them is for the sake of their father Ya‘akov, but that now that father is dead, Yoseph would kill them, they lie and tell him that before dying, Ya‘akov had sent a message commanding Yoseph to forgive them. The Talmud sees that lie as a model for human behavior when necessary to keep peace.

Another Talmudic passage (Bava Metzia‘ 23b-24a) teaches that one is permitted to lie regarding “tractate, bed, and being a houseguest”. Rashi explains that if someone asks whether you have mastered a certain tractate of Talmud, or had sex last night, or had a wonderful experience being hosted in so-and-so’s home, you may answer “no”, even if the truthful answer is “yes”. The Talmud recognizes that sometimes people ask questions they have no business asking, goading you into competitive boasting, which distorts the purpose of learning; encroaching on your privacy, goading you into uncouth violation of intimacy; or trying to find out whose generosity can be exploited.

Think about these laws through a power lens. You’re never allowed to deceive someone into thinking you did something for them, because that gives you power over them; they owe you something. But if they unnecessarily tell themself that you did it for them, it’s because that feeling of connection is what they need. It doesn’t weaken them in relation to you; it strengthens them, allows them to feel stronger social bonds. Perhaps a reason we favor arbitration is a sober recognition that, despite our best efforts, the court system is not always fair and does not neutralize power imbalances. A more powerful plaintiff is likely to be able to overwhelm a weaker defendant and the court itself, extracting an undeserved verdict. A more powerful defendant is likely to be able to hobble the court with procedural stalling, dragging out proceedings to an unsustainable point for the weaker plaintiff. The justice system does not always do justice; arbitration offers a lane of quicker, partial restitution. Yoseph’s brothers are our model for sanctioned white lies for “peace”. They were famine refugees at the mercy of the state’s finance minister (their brother, Yoseph), who held their lives in their hands. Finally, in the “tractate, bed, houseguest” case, the concern seems to be about preserving or restoring appropriate boundaries from someone who has aggressively crossed them. When real truth is for a question not to be asked, lying in response to the question serves the greater truth and limits the power of someone abusing it. 

This idea is dangerous and we must be sensitive to potential abuse we may be justifying. Our story still leaves us wondering why the Torah never depicts Rivka telling Yitzhak what God told her about their sons. When dishonesty is justified, many things have already gone wrong. Maybe Yitzhak, in his state after the ‘Akeidah (binding), simply could not communicate about family matters. Be that as it may, truth is not an end to itself, but a means to the larger end of doing good. We cannot hurt another person and feel justified because, “after all, I told the truth”. Real, ultimate truth is when goodness flows like a mighty stream that reaches everyone.

Shabbat shalom.

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