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Vayechi (5769) – The White Lie

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Is it permitted to tell a white lie? If a murderer is at large, brandishing a gun, and his intended victim takes refuge in your house, are you obligated to tell the truth when the would-be killer knocks on your door and asks, “Is he here”? Immanuel Kant, the greatest philosopher of modern times, said Yes. We should always tell the truth, whatever the circumstances and consequences. Judaism says No. Not only is it permitted to tell a white lie to save a life. It is also permitted to do so for the sake of peace.

The sages derived this from two episodes, one in this week’s sedra. Jacob has died. The brothers fear that Joseph will now take revenge for the fact that they sold him into slavery. They devise a stratagem:

They sent word to Joseph, saying, “Your father left these instructions before he died: ‘This is what you are to say to Joseph: I ask you to forgive your brothers the sins and the wrongs they committed in treating you so badly.’ Now please forgive the sins of the servants of the G-d of your father.” When their message came to him, Joseph wept.

There is no evidence that Jacob ever said the words attributed to him. The sages therefore assumed that what the brothers said was a lie. They concluded that “It is permitted to change [to tell a white lie] for the sake of peace.” They derived the same principle from a second source as well.

When three visitors came to Abraham in his old age and said that in a year’s time Sarah would have a child, Sarah laughed, saying to herself: “After I am worn out and my husband is old, will I now have this pleasure?” G-d tells Abraham that Sarah disbelieves: “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Will I really have a child, now that I am old?'” Tactfully, He omits reference to Sarah’s remark about her husband being old. This too served the sages as proof of the rule.

Both sources are necessary. If we only had the evidence of Joseph’s brothers, we could not infer that what they did was right. Perhaps they were wrong to lie. And if we only had the evidence of G-d’s words to Abraham, we could only infer that a half-truth is permitted [G-d does not say anything false; He merely omits some of Sarah’s words], not an actual falsehood. Putting them together, the rule is established. Peace takes precedence over truth.

To understand a civilization, it is necessary not only to know the values and virtues it embraces, but also the order of priority among them. Many cultures value freedom and equality. The difficult question is: which takes precedence? Communism values equality more than freedom. Laissez-faire capitalism values freedom more than equality. They share the same ideals, but because they assign them different places in the ethical hierarchy, they result in completely different societies.
Truth and truthfulness are fundamental values in Judaism. We call the Torah “the law of truth.” The sages called truth the signature of G-d. Yet truth is not the highest value in Judaism. Peace is. Why so? For this, there are two reasons.

The first is the extraordinary value Judaism attributes to peace. The nineteenth century historian, Sir Henry Sumner Maine, said: “War is as old as mankind. Peace is a modern invention.” He had much evidence to support him. Virtually every culture until modern times was militaristic. Heroes were mighty men of valour who fought and often died on the field of battle. Legends were about great victories in war. Conflict (between the gods, or the elements, or the children of light against the children of darkness) was written into the human script.

Against this, the prophets of ancient Israel were the first people in history to see peace as an ideal. That is why the words of Isaiah, echoed by Micah, have never lost their power:

He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.

This vision of a world at peace was not centuries but millennia ahead of its time.

At the same time, Judaism took a more subtle view of truth than did the philosophers of antiquity. In logic, a sentence is either true or false. There is no third alternative. In Judaism, by contrast, truth is many-faceted and elusive. Of the disputes between the schools of Hillel and Shammai, the Talmud says, “These and those are the words of the living G-d.” Some believe that, though now the law is in accord with the school of Hillel, in the Messianic Age it will follow the view of Shammai. Ultimate truth forever eludes us. Maimonides held that we can only know what G-d is not; not what He is. “If I could know G-d,” said one sage, “I would be G-d.”

There is such a thing as truth in the eye of the beholder. The school of Hillel held that one should always say at a wedding, “The bride is beautiful and gracious.” But what if she isn’t, asked Shammai? Will you tell a lie? In the eyes of her husband, she is beautiful, answered Hillel.

Truth matters, but peace matters more. That is Judaism’s considered judgement. Many of the greatest crimes in history were committed by those who believed they were in possession of the truth while their opponents were sunk in error. To make peace between husband and wife (Abraham and Sarah) and between brothers (Joseph and Jacob’s other sons) the Torah sanctions a statement that is less than the whole truth. Dishonesty? No. Tact, sensitivity, discretion? Yes. That is an idea both eminently sensible and humane.