Be honest for a moment. How often do you lie? Immanuel Kant viewed honesty as a categorical imperative, meaning that he thought that it was never acceptable to lie. Before him, theologians such as Augustine and Aquinas argued that any form of lying is a sin. In Jewish thought, the Talmud tells us that the seal of God is stamped with truth. One of the ten commandments is not to bear false witness and there are prohibitions against being dishonest in business and generally misleading others. We tend to think lying is bad and we advocate for honesty. Yet, if we are to examine the stories of our forefathers, particularly that of Yaakov, lying seems to be a big part of the narrative.
Yaakov, with the help of Rivka, dresses up like Esav and brings the requisite food to Yitzchak in order to receive the blessings which Yitzchak wanted to give to Esav. When Yitzchak asks straight out “who are you, my son?” Yaakov responds, “I am Esav your firstborn.” Rashi defends the lie by suggesting that it could be read as two separate statements. “I am” the one who is bringing you food, and parenthetically, “Esav is your firstborn.” While perhaps that excuses some level of verbal untruth, it does not remove the fact that the whole act is one of deception. So how are we to understand the dishonesty of Yaakov and Rivka, especially when juxtaposed with the demands for honesty in other parts of the Torah?
Rabbi Yehuda Brandes suggests that the question is really only a formidable one from a theoretical perspective. Only someone who sits in an ivory tower, and talks and thinks in abstract ideas, can entertain the possibility that lying is never acceptable. The Torah is meant to be learned and lived in the real world, a world that is filled with lies, paradoxes, contradictions, ethical conundrums, and dialectical tensions. Truth is not the ultimate value within in a Torah framework and needs to be contended with along with other values, such as peace and being sensitive to the feelings of others. The Torah also does not expect the righteous person to stick to the truth to the point where he or she will be taken advantage of by others. This is why Avraham lies to Avimelech, telling him the Sarah is not his wife, but his sister.
Israeli born psychologist, Dan Ariely, presented the keynote address at the Association for Psychological Science annual convention in 2016, outlining the research he has conducted on lying. To start his presentation, Ariely framed his discussion by quoting Chumash. When God said to Sarah that she was going to have a child, she responded incredulously, “How can I have a child when my husband is so old?” When God repeats what Sarah says to Avraham, God lies! He tells Avraham that Sarah questioned how she would have a child if she is so old. Ariely, echoing the message from the Talmud, concludes that the moral of the story is that it is ok to lie for the sake of peace at home. “When you think about it” he concludes “that’s what dishonesty is all about.” As Ariely’s collaborator and professor at Wharton school of business, Maurice Schweitzer argues, our conception of lying as being automatically wrong is incorrect. We should separate dishonesty from selfishness. We could be benevolently dishonest and selfishly honest. Through his research he concludes that “When we tell people, ‘Never lie to me,’ what we really mean is, ‘Don’t be selfish.’”
As a general rule, lying is wrong. Yet, there are certain times where other values override the virtue of honesty. Obviously, this approach opens up a Pandora's box. The subjective judgement about when it is acceptable and even appropriate to lie can be used improperly as an excuse to justify unethical behavior. While this is definitely a real danger, the way to deal with this issue is not to pretend that lying is always wrong. Rather, as Rabbi Brandes recommends, it is to learn and to teach how to weigh moral dilemmas through the prism of Jewish ethics, exploring the sources, carefully applying values to each situation, being aware of common self-deceptions, and consulting with wise and God-fearing teachers and mentors.