Would you give full marks to George Washington for always telling the truth?

January 4, 2021 by Rabbi Raymond Apple

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Ask the rabbi….

TELLING LIES

Rabbi Raymond Apple

Q. Would Jewish ethics applaud George Washington who is said to have been unable to tell a lie?

A. I knew an Australian synagogue where they taught their pupils to sing (in English) a song that went, “Be the matter what it may, always tell the truth…”

It sounds just like George Washington – but actually, the problem is much more complicated.

What are we to do if telling the whole truth would cause or condone controversy or conflict?

In the language of Jewish ethics, how are we to resolve a clash between truth and peace, or truth and justice? Is the truth greater than peace (or justice), or are they greater than truth?

Great though truth is, the sages say, “God alters the truth for the sake of peace” (BM 87a). Biblical examples are found in Gen. 18:12-13; Gen. 50:15-17; I Sam. 16:1-2, etc.

A practical illustration is the situation of the dying patient. Do we tell him the unvarnished truth about his prognosis if this would take away the last shreds of his peace of mind?

The problem arose with Ben-Hadad king of Aram. Elisha told a messenger to inform the king, “You will live” even though God had revealed to the prophet that the king would die.

There is a solid study of the question in an essay by Gary Joseph Lavit, “Truth-Telling to Patients with Terminal Diagnosis”, in The Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society, vol. 15 (1988).

In many areas of human relations the same problem arises. The Talmud relates that there were difficulties between Rava and his wife, and their son Chiyya filtered the truth so as not to make relations between his parents worse (Yev. 63a).

Lavit says that in such cases of conflict between truth and peace, it is not that the rule of truthfulness is cancelled but it is temporarily pushed aside. This is a good statement of the case. Truth is indeed supremely important but in an emergency, it can be superseded by a competing ethical principle.

However, there is no justification for twisting the truth for the purpose of commercial advantage. Thus an advertiser has no right to varnish the truth in order to sell more products and make more money.

MAN: THE SUMMIT OF CREATION?

Q. Is man the summit of creation?

A. The sages think so. They put into the mouth of the human being the words, “bish’vili nivra ha-olam” – “For my sake was the world created” (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5).

It is not merely that the whole process of creation led up to the creation of man, but, according to Sa’adia Ga’on, man is a superior being with intellectual, moral and spiritual traits and talents which no other species possesses.

Sa’adia says, “Should anyone imagine that there exists some other being outside of man that is endowed with such superior qualities, then let him show us these qualities or even some of them in some other creature. Such a being, however, he will never discover”.

Maimonides adds that this does not mean that other parts of creation lack a role and purpose. They serve man, but this is not necessarily their only or major raison d’etre. “They have been intended for their own sakes and not for the sake of something else.”

Man must never boast of his greatness: “What are we?” asks the Yom Kippur liturgy; “What is our life, our goodness, our virtue, our strength, our might? Even if man is righteous, what does he give You? Man has no eminence over beast, for all is vanity.”

Nonetheless, says the liturgy, “From the first You singled out mortal man and deemed him worthy to stand before You”.

Rabbi Raymond Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem where he answers interesting questions.

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