Reflections on Yom Kippur 5782.
The time of Yom Kippur is the time of our confession. We confess our sins together before God as a whole community, because they are not only “our private affairs”, if only because the effects of our offenses are often felt by other people. As Jews, we have also been – and still are sometimes – judged in terms of collective responsibility for the actions of individuals, whether we like it or not. The “list of sins” that our High Holiday prayers include is long and we recite them even though many of them we have never committed. However, the very experience of confessing our common transgressions together is extraordinary and binds us together.
We have become guilty… we have robbed… we have corrupted others… we have been wicked… just to mention a few transgression enumerated in Ashamnu. Most of us have never rob someone, most of us are not wicked, very few people commit serious crimes like murder. But there is an offense that almost all of us commit, to varying degrees, basically every day – that offense is lying.
The Torah does not explicitly forbid all forms of lying, but merely its more serious forms. An interesting opinion on the 9th commandment was expressed by Abravanel, a Portuguese Jewish statesman, philosopher, and Bible commentator:
And once it warned a man not to injure his fellow with bad deeds – not towards his wife, his body or his money – it warned him also not to injure him with the words of his lips. And that is its stating, “You shall not testify falsely against your fellow.” And besides this prohibition that a person not testify falsely; also included in it is one who mocks his fellow, one who speaks evil speech, one who talebears, one who whitens the face of his fellow in public and that which is similar to them from the commandments that I mentioned.
The reason that Torah does not include a commandment “you shall not lie” is that it would be ethically problematic: we all know that there are situations where lying is permitted or even desirable – for example, if it is necessary to save someone’s life. Instead, the commandment we find in the Torah is: Lo taane b’reacha ed shaker, which is typically translated as You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor, but it literally means: You shall not respond to your neighbor/friend, (you) false witness! It is all about giving testimony in public or making a public statement about someone else. The reason the Torah frames the prohibition of lying this way is that this is the only instance when lying involves unquestionable harm and this is the only situation where prohibition of lying can be unquestionably viewed as objective and absolute.
People, especially today, more and more often think that telling the truth can be equally harmful as telling a lie, and given the relative character of the norm You shall not lie it is often superseded by a different commandment: You shall not harm. This is the norm that very often serves to justify so telling so called white lies. Some people even believe in the absolute character of this norm – You shall not harm no matter what. The reasoning behind that kind of belief would be the following: since you can harm someone by both telling lies and telling the truth, and there are no clear, objective guidelines when telling the truth or a lie will be harmful, it’s better then to replace this norm with: You shall not harm. The problem with this reasoning is that by acting according to this ‘alternative norm’ and avoiding to harm another human being by telling the truth we can actually harm someone much more.
A great example of how we can hurt another person by not telling the truth can be found in Sam Harris’ essay “Lying”, from 2011:
But let’s imagine the truth is harder to tell: Your friend looks fat in that dress, or any dress, because she is fat. Let’s say she is also thirty-five years old and single, and you know that her greatest desire is to get married and start a family. You also believe that many men would be disinclined to date her at her current weight. And, marriage aside, you are confident that she would be happier and healthier, and would feel better about herself, if she got in shape. A white lie is simply a denial of these realities. It is a refusal to offer honest guidance in a storm. Even on so touchy a subject, lying seems a clear failure of friendship. By reassuring your friend about her appearance, you are not helping her to do what you think she should do to get what she wants out of life.
Harris continues and gives us another, even more telling example, as well as an important conclusion:
In many circumstances in life, false encouragement can be very costly to another person. Imagine that you have a friend who has spent years striving unsuccessfully to build a career as an actor. Many fine actors struggle in this way, of course, but in your friend’s case the reason seems self-evident: He is a terrible actor. In fact, you know that his other friends—and even his parents— share this opinion but cannot bring themselves to express it. What do you say the next time he complains about his stalled career? Do you encourage him to “just keep at it”? False encouragement is a kind of theft: It steals time, energy, and motivation that a person could put toward some other purpose. […]
When we presume to lie for the benefit of others, we have decided that we are the best judges of how much they should understand about their own lives—about how they appear, their reputations, or their prospects in the world. This is an extraordinary stance to adopt toward other human beings, and it requires justification. Unless someone is suicidal or otherwise on the brink, deciding how much he should know about himself seems the quintessence of arrogance. What attitude could be more disrespectful of those we care about?
The quintessence of arrogance… Harris is completely right in his observation here. In fact, people who regularly practice white lies often rationalize them by the conviction that such actions, undertaken in order to “not hurt someone with words” are a sign of great (moral) sensitivity and are an expression of some superior morality. Some may believe that this may be yet another opportunity to show someone their kindness. While it indeed may be a sign of a greater sensitivity, there is no superior morality in it but indeed – it’s simply arrogance.
Moreover, in religious terms, failure to tell someone the truth, especially if it concerns an important issue, can be considered a sin by omission. By doing that we act like Jonah who attempted to flee from “the presence of the God” by going to Jaffa and sailing to Tarshish, instead of doing the right thing and rebuking the sinful people of Nivneh. Jonah’s sin by omission only brought a huge storm and made the sailors cast him to the sea, after which he was miraculously saved by the whale send by God to throw him back on the land. Ultimately, he had to do what he was commanded to do in the first place.
By telling the truth we often take some responsibility. If we refuse to do it we simply avoid this responsibility. To lie by omission, to stand by and pretend that everything is ok may spare you from some temporary inconveniences and some pain. But in the long run it may bring much worse consequences, to us, our loved ones and our friends. All totalitarian, criminal systems started with lies and were built on those lies – that’s the most horrific example of what can happen to us if we, no matter for what reason, refuse to speak the truth or fight for it.
Our everyday white lies most probably won’t bring another totalitarian system of massive enslavement. But as I mentioned above, it is incorrect to replace the commandment: You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor with the more general norm You shall not harm. If we do so then many of the nuances of our ethical behavior will be eliminated. In this way our ethical imagination will be flattened and our ethical sensitivity will be actually dulled.
Naturally telling the truth is sometimes not easy. Different cultures set different standards regarding interpersonal communication and in what way should we communicate ‘painful truths’. Different people are also differently skilled in this matter and not everyone is always able to tell ‘the truth’ in a gentle, kind way. But we can all work on that and we should work on both, our kindness and truthfulness at the same time.
G’mar Chatima Tovah!