THIS VICE OF LYING
Rabbi David Walk
Everybody lies. How much? Well, a study of 2000 Britons claims that men tell six lies a day with women averaging three. The same research found the most common lie (told by both sexes) being "Nothing's wrong, I'm fine." The most profligate liar in history was Richard Nixon, who researchers found to have lied on record 837 times on a single day. Harry Truman said that Richard Nixon lied so much that if he ever caught himself telling the truth, he'd lie just to keep in practice. More statistics: Lying was more common in phone calls than in face-to-face chats. One lie in seven was discovered--as far as the liars could tell. A tenth of the lies were merely exaggerations, while 60 percent were outright deceptions. More than 70 percent of liars would tell their lies again. An embarrassing footnote: One study showed that the profession which lies the most is educators. Whoops! But why do people lie? There are many studies and many answers, but from what from my extensive research (a couple of Google searches) showed it seems that the two most common reasons for lying are, number one, to give a better impression of ourselves (sometimes even to ourselves) and, two, to ensure the well-being of another. Most of us wouldn't find that second category so terrible. But should we? Let's try to figure out what this week's Torah reading says about this issue.
The famous expression of the severity of lying is: Stay far away from a false matter (Exodus 23:7). From the context this prohibition is discussing judges and court cases. However, over the centuries this phrase has come to condemn any lie. So, we're being told to keep our distance from any falsehood, but is that possible? In the first paragraph I quoted some statistics about lying and it seems that everyone does it. There's also a famous verse from Hallel: In my alarm I said," Everyone is a liar (Psalms 116:11)." Also, we see that lying may have been one of the results of the sin in Paradise. Immediately after consuming the fruit, Adam and Eve lie a number of times. So, it seems that lying is part of the natural condition of humanity. If that's true how can I stay away from lying?
The Rav (Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik, 1903-1993) discusses the nature of lying in his recently published The Emergence of Ethical Man. He first discusses the initial lie of Adam and concludes that the first lie was defensive. Adam lied to hide his feeling of guilt and embarrassment, perhaps to deceive his conscience. The Rav goes on to analyze the central halachic issue of truth in the judicial system, as quoted in the verse from our parsha and in the form of the ninth commandment. To do this the Rav distinguishes between two types of lies, which he designates historical or theoretical lies and practical lies. The first category contains distortions of the objective nature of reality. If one tells you that a piece of iron is gold, that's an objective falsehood. However, in the second instance if a person tells you that he/she plans to help you, at the time of the utterance the statement can't be described as true or false, only the unfolding of time will reveal the truth or falsity. The first historical category is descriptive; the second or practical is creative, and up to the speaker. The Rav concludes that the immorality of a lie is twofold: the historical lie about real events and facts is immoral because it distorts the existing natural order, and God wanted humans to be objective observers of the cosmic drama. That's why perjury is so very severe. It tries to officially pervert the record forever. The practical lie, on the other hand, is immoral because a human's decision to not fulfill the statement is vain and futile because humans must be creative. The Rav says that this distinction can be seen in the two terms shav (vain), as in the third commandment, and sheker (false), an objective distortion of reality.
I'd like to make another suggestion. I'm totally with the Rav on the description of the sheker prohibited in our verse. It is a purposefully inaccurate depiction of events for personal gain. This is reprehensible and inexcusable. This is the sheker which we all must make every effort to remain distant from. However, when we misrepresent the workings of our own mind we can understand those events in two ways. When we obfuscate our intentions or opinions, we can be doing this for personal gain. This is also pretty bad. In Judaism we don't appreciate the flatterer or the sycophant. But when I report my opinions inaccurately because I'm concerned for the feelings of another, that can be a benevolent act of kindness. I really don't like polka dots, but if a friend is excited about a new polka dotted garment, who am I to burst their bubble. Their lack of taste is no reason to make them feel bad. Sometimes I can do more good with a slight lie than with the truth. That's why our Sages claim that in this world Shalom is greater than Emet. We strive for good relations over accuracy. This second category of lies is called kozev, and is referred to in the verse from Psalms that everyone is a liar. No one can be free of this form of falsehood. Nor should we be.
The problem with kozev, of course, is our intentions. We must be brutally honest with ourselves. Are we amending the truth for the sake of another? Or are we misreporting the workings of our brain to make ourselves look better. The former is fine; the latter is lousy.
It's ironic, but even lying requires honesty if it is to be something positive and constructive. But the verse is telling us the truth. It may be fine to mask our opinion for the sake of another, but everyone must stay very distant from distorting reality, because there's only one reality for all of us. Daniel Patrick Moynihan said that everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.
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