Is It Ever Okay to Lie?


According to a recent survey, we bend the truth an average of 1.65 times a day.

Another report states that those of us who are morning people lie more than night people. My wife really ribbed me for that one. Maybe you saw the GEICO commercial in which the honesty of Abraham Lincoln was sorely tested. Mary Todd Lincoln stands in front of him and asks, “Does this dress make my backside look big?”

After an awkward pause, Honest Abe answers truthfully. His wife walks off in a huff. 

Of course, most day-to-day lies do not rise to the level of the whopper told by a postal carrier named Cathy Wrench Cashwell. According to The Atlantic magazine (September 2013), she appeared on the show The Price Is Right, raised her arms, grabbed the wheel and gave it a spin.

So what was the problem with that? Five years earlier, she had filed for workers’ compensation, claiming that she had been injured on the job. She said that her injury left her unable to stand, reach and grasp as part of her job — skills which she demonstrated quite well on The Price Is Right.

The tape of the game show caught her in her lie, as did the pictures she posted on Facebook showing her riding a zip line on a Carnival cruise. Indicted in federal court for worker’s-compensation fraud, she pleaded guilty. 

Clearly, people lie. We may not tell big lies that land us in federal court. But we’re not as truthful as Honest Abe in the Geico commercial either.   The ancient rabbis understood that sometimes lying is okay, if it is done for the right reason. According to the House of Hillel, the dancers should chant the same words in front of all brides: “What a beautiful and graceful bride!” Their opponents, the House of Shammai, disagree. “If she is lame or blind, are you going to say of her, ‘What a beautiful and graceful bride?’ Does not the Torah command, ‘Stay far away from falsehood’ (Exodus 23:7)?” They thus oppose reciting a standard formula; rather, each bride should be described “as she is” (see Babylonian Talmud, Ketubot 17a). Hillel’s position is accepted as Jewish law. One praises the beauty of all brides and, in any case, the bride is likely to appear beautiful in the eyes of her groom.

 So, too, the rabbis accept the fact that Joseph’s brothers lied to him to maintain family harmony, after their father died.   Lying itself is not the issue. Whether we do so to help ourselves or help others is the deciding factor. And, of course, whether or not we are objective enough to know the difference.   So the next time (sometime today) you are tempted to lie, ask yourself why and see if this lie reflects your values or your weaknesses. Then you will know, most likely, what you should do.

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