Mishpatim – Its just a White Lie
Exodus 23:7 commands us to ‘be distant from a matter of falsehood…’ This is the verse usually cited when discussing the importance of speaking the truth. However, this phraseology is unusual. One of the Ten Commandments listed in last week’s reading was a more clear commandment not to lie, although that was specifically in the context of providing testimony. Our verse here applies generally, but it is worded in an open ended way, which either means that it is more open to interpretation (aren’t there many truths?), or that truth is so important that one should remain at a good distance from anything false.
Truth as a Jewish value is not on the highest tier of values. One can, and should, lie to save a life, since life itself overrides the value of truth when the two conflict. Other values also trump truth. The Talmud (Baba Metzia 87a) states that one may ‘bend’ the truth for the sake of peace. While one should avoid this if it can become a recurring habit, as the Talmud discusses elsewhere (Yevamot 63a), the principle remains that truth is not an overarching value.
In Avot D’Rabi Nattan it is described how Aaron the High Priest would go about making peace between people who had been quarreling. Aaron would approach one and gently tell him how badly the other was feeling about their disagreement and how remorseful he was. he would then approach the other and tell him exactly the same thing. When the two later met each other they would embrace and put their disagreement behind them.
In principle Aaron’s approach is commendable, as the ‘bending of truth’ is permissible when it helps to establish peace. But presumably Aaron did this regularly and that is discouraged by the Talmud when it becomes habitual. How would Aaron respond to such criticism?
I read a suggestion that Aaron might have perceived the Jewish people as a single unit, as one body. Although one limb may be frustrated at times with another, deep down it is aware that they both belong to the same body and are part of one whole. Therefore Aaron did not view his coaxing as a ‘bending of truth’ rather as a deeper truth.
This same idea is recalled by Maimonides when he discusses the laws of ‘forcing’ a man to write a letter of divorce. Although when pressure is applied the man might agree to authorize the get, it is nevertheless authorized under duress. How could that qualify as a wilfull divorce? The answer similarly is, that deep down a person desires to do the right thing. There are numerous obstacles preventing him from doing the right thing, including hurt, resentment and other negative attributes. The pressure applied does not force the man to do what he never wanted to do, it rather cuts through his surface opposition and allows his deeper and true desires to come out and say “I will.”
While this idea is contestable when applied elsewhere, it certainly appeals to a Kantian view that mankind is basically good and will ultimately find the right way and make good choices.