A Half Truth is Still a Whole Lie (Yiddish Proverb)

While there are numerous factors that contributed to the current economic turmoil, corporate fraud is at the top of the list. Everyone has heard of the $50 billion Madoff scandal, but the other day I read about a smaller (a mere billion dollar) one that came out of an Indian IT company called Satyam, which ironically means “truth” in Sanskrit. What caught my eye was the way that the founder and chairman of the company explained how the fraud began. What was meant at first as an attempt to mitigate a minor accounting discrepancy eventually “attained unmanageable proportions as the size of the company operations grew”.

And then I thought about how wisely the Torah tells us “mid’var sheker, teer-chak” (from a false thing, distance yourself). There’s no other prohibition in the Torah where such language is used. We’re not told to distance ourselves from murder, from non-kosher food, from theft even.

So why is falsehood described in such physical terms, and why is the distance necessary? Perhaps because of the good ol’ proverbial slippery slope. And because the Torah understands how easy it is for a white lie to turn into a whopper (and I don’t mean the kind you get at Burger King).

We’re told to stay far away from that slope, because if we get near it, we’re likely to slip down it. Simple enough, except for the fact that stretching the truth is necessary at times, and the Talmud backs me up on this one.

Let’s call it the “case of the ugly bride”. Who, upon seeing a less than attractive bride on her wedding day, would refrain from telling her that she’s beautiful just because technically it’s not so true? What would you say instead when you saw her? You smell nice? The flowers are lovely? Nope. Doesn’t work. A bride must be told that she looks beautiful on her big day.

And so the Talmud struggles with how to reconcile the Torah’s commandment of distancing oneself from falsehood while at the same time remembering that lying sometimes spares another person’s feelings. Rabbi Hillel, in the Talmud, explains that beauty is a relative term, so calling the bride beautiful is not dishonest as her groom finds her beautiful. But I have a different take. 

I don’t see a contradiction between these two ideas because the falsehood that we’re told to stay away from in the Torah is the self-interested type. It’s the kind of falsehood that could grow and grow as we try to protect or promote or advance ourselves. When truth-stretching is done to preserve another person’s feelings, however, the desire to push the lie further and further just isn’t there. There’s no slippery slope, so there’s nothing to distance ourselves from. And that’s the whole truth.

Disgusting As a Danish
Of the Lean Days Ahead

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  1. I wonder why I can’t get your site to show up on Google reader? You show on Bloglines, but I don’t like it as well.

  2. Often times protecting another’s feelings is about us wanting to avoid conflict, which is cowardice or an emotional weakness on our part. That slope can still be there for us to slide down if we hide behind the excuse “I don’t want to hurt them;” like so many relationships plagued with adultery because one partner couldn’t bring themselves to hurt the other and break up before starting another relationship. We must distance ourselves from all lies–even if it seems the lie is not for our own benefit. But beauty is certainly relative, and her own wedding day is likely the most beautiful that any woman has looked in her life. So to say, “I’ve never seen you so beautiful.” Is a great compliment and in no way a lie. Perhaps a more difficult scenario to consider is when a lie could save lives. If, let’s say, someone were hiding someone else from persecution (think Jews in the attic in Nazi Poland), and they were asked simply “are you hiding people in the attic?” Again, it could be argued that this lie is very self-interested as the shelterers would be arrested or killed if they’re discovered, but obviously more at stake for the people hiding. What if someone shelters a murderous friend from the police? How do we determine when the lie is ok? And if it’s not, how do we reconcile sending innocents to their death?

  3. You raise some interesting points, Nicole, but I am raising some interesting children who happen to be starting a week (plus) vacation from school quite imminently. So I look forward to addressing your comment soon, but probably not until the kiddos are back on their normal schedule!

  4. Sorry, Donna, I have no clue how these things work. Is anyone out there using Google reader successfully with this blog?

  5. OK, I finally have a minute to respond, Nicole! In the case of complimenting a bride on her wedding day, I don’t believe one would do that to avoid conflict – the purpose would be to make the bride feel nice and happy on her special day. But if you can come up with an example (as you have) where not hurting another person’s feelings has self-interest mixed in, then I believe, as you said, the slippery slope would exist and the situation is no longer as simple as I put it in the post. (BTW, I love your “I’ve never seen you so beautiful” example – it’s a nice way to be safe with both feelings and honesty).
    But sometimes it does have to be one or the other. In the case of hiding Jews in Nazi Poland – this example – according to Jewish law is in a totally different category as it’s an issue of loss of innocent life and therefore, according to the principle of “pikuach nefesh” nearly all mitzvahs get overriden to save the life of an innocent.
    In the example of the murderous friend hiding from the police – we need more information here. Does the friend live in a place with a just government or a corrupt one? If the murderous friend killed out of self-defense and lives in a place where there’s a just government, hand him over – he should end up OK. If the government is corrupt – hide him, since he won’t get a fair trial. If he’s just a flat out murderer – hand him over in that case too.
    To sum things up – since my blog posts are short (and I hope sweet!) I tried to keep things simple, despite the fact, as you’ve pointed out, that these issues can get quite complex.

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