Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Truth & Lies - parameters and balance

There is an interesting article that I found on the internet regarding the parameters of telling the truth. I would recommend reading it before reading the psak of the Rema (#11) - brought at the end of my post - regarding the permissibility of slandering an innocent distinguished talmid chachom in order to make peace in the community

Perspectives on truthfulness in the Jewish tradition

Rabbi Dr. Ari Zivotofsky


The value of truth permeates the fabric of Judaism both legally and philosophically. Legally, at least three times the Torah mentions the imperative to tell the truth and refrain from lying: 1) "You shall not bear false witness" (Exodus 20:13); 2) "Keep far from a false matter" (Ex. 23:7); and 3) "Neither shall you deal falsely nor lie to one another" (Leviticus 19:11). The Prophets continue to admonish the people to speak the truth, as in: Jer. 9:2-6 and Zach. 8:16. Philosophically and theologically as well, truth is deemed of the utmost importance. It is viewed as God's insignia (Jer. 10:10, Yoma 69b). The Torah is called "Truth" (Proverbs 23:23); one of the thirteen attributes ascribed to God is truth (Ex. 34:6). Likewise, in Proverbs 12:22, King Solomon admonishes: "Lying lips are an abomination to the Lord, but they who deal truly are His delight." The Talmud declares that liars are one of the four classes of people who will not be admitted to the Divine presence in the world to come (Sanhedrin 103a). Later authorities, such as Rabbenu Bahya, Rav Saadiah Gaon and Maimonides, continued to extol the virtues of truth.(1)

Given all of the above, as well as countless other examples found in Jewish tradition of the importance of truth, it would seem that it is an absolute, supreme principle in Judaism. However, there are other ethical imperatives in Judaism which are, in fact, often found side by side with truth. An example is peace (shalom), as in: "Love the truth and peace" (Zach. 8:19), and "On three pillars the world is sustained: On truth, on justice and on peace" (Pirkei Avot 1:18). The problems arise when two or more of these principles come into conflict.(2)

The question can be addressed from both philosophical and legal perspectives. From a philosophical outlook, the question is: which one of the purposes of truth-telling is primary - the social or the moral? The former is to ensure the smooth functioning of society, which is possible only when there is complete confidence in communication; the latter is to safeguard one's own moral integrity.(3) As is often the case with a legal/ philosophical issue, the black and white answer is not to be found, and both philosophical aspects of truth-telling are vital, neither yielding totally to the other.

In this context I present the translation of the Rema (#11). As far as I know the ruling of the Rema was not accepted and is not cited with approval by anyone else. It is the thinking, however, of one our major poskim and illustrates how important community peace is.

Rema (#11): Concerning the matter of justifying slander in order to obtain peace in the community. Yevamos (65b): “R’ Eliezer said that it is permitted to cause a misunderstanding (lie) for the sake of peace… R’ Nosson said that it is a mitzva… The School of R’ Yishmael said that peace is so important that even G d created a misunderstanding (lied) for the sake of peace.” …We learn from these sources that it is permitted to lie for the sake of peace and it is permitted to violate the prohibition of saying lies (Shemos 23:7). It is even permitted to transgress the prohibition of erasing G d’s name (Devarim 12:4) [for the sake of making peace between husband and wife in the case of sotah.] as is stated in the Sifre… It follows from this that one can also violate the prohibition of slander. In other words it is permitted to violate the prohibition of slander if his motivation is for the sake of heaven and it serves a good purpose in making peace. This is learned from Nazir (23b) Greater is a sin done for the sake of heaven than a mitzva which is done for ulterior motivation as we learned from the incident with Yael [in which she had sexual relations with the enemy general Sisra in order to kill him]. This is learned logically from the case of Sotah where the Torah says to transgress the prohibition of erasing G d’s name in order to bring about peace between a man and his wife. So surely it is permitted to transgress the prohibition of slander in order to bring about peace amongst Jews who are widely scattered and only a small minority are observant of Torah and mitzvos. Thus it is a case of “ais la’aso” (a time to do for G d even to go so far as nullifying the Torah) (Tehilim 119:126) – in order to bring about peace amongst Jews and to eliminate disputes and disunity and to remove the stumbling block from our people. Consequently if transgressing a Torah prohibition is permitted to make peace between man and wife it is surely permitted to make it between family members and within the community. […] So it is with the case before us. Even though you might say that it is better that the condition of the country deteriorate rather than subjecting an innocent person to ridicule and degradation by slandering him for something he didn’t do and surely this particular individual who is more distinguished than 100 community leaders…, nevertheless it seems to me that even so we should not deviate at all from this approach. That is because we must distinguish this case from the case of handing an innocent person to the enemy to be killed or violated in order to save the community which is prohibited. But subjecting him to slander is not so serious and it is permitted… We have thus proven that it is permitted to slander an innocent person for the sake of making community peace… It is also important to note that I have never seen a worse community situation than the present case…

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