A Place Called Honesty

“I once believed that there was not a person in the world who was completely truthful.” —Rabbah

(Download this story in Microsoft Word format here.) 

Maybe like Rabbah, an ancient Talmudic sage, you’ve been listening to the news of the past weeks and arrived at the same conclusion. Is there even one person who tells the truth? Whether it’s in a locker room or a political race, it's getting harder to know who to trust when basic moral codes are broken and very little is as it seems.

The Torah says distance yourself from falsehood [Exodus 23:7]. But where should we go to create distance? Where does honesty live?

Rabbah actually found where out exactly where honesty lives in a story related in Tractate Sanhedrin of the Talmud (97b). Troubled by the fact that no one in his world seemed completely truthful, he heard about another rabbi, Rabbi Tabut, who would pass up all the world’s riches rather than tell a lie.

As it happens, Rabbi Tabut once went to a village called Kushta, which actually means honesty in Aramaic. If you live in a town called Truth, it's hard to lie. Apparently, no one ever lied there and, as a result, legend had it that no one ever died before his or her time. The good rabbi fell in love with a woman there, and they had two sons. He was very happy in Kushta, but one day he told a small lie to protect his wife’s privacy, and thus began his downfall. When his sons died prematurely, the townspeople wanted to know why. After all, no one ever died there before his or her time. Rabbi Tabut told them the truth about his lie, and they, in turn, asked him to leave their village. He didn't belong there. Maybe once upon a time it was the right home for his virtue, but he compromised his integrity and could no longer stay in Kushta.

In Saving the World Entire, Rabbi Bradley Bleefield and Robert Shook understand this legend as a cautionary tale about the impact of lies: “We can never be certain about the repercussions of the lies we tell. We are often unaware that our remarks have significant impact on others and that people can act on what they may believe is the truth.”

Deviating from the truth carries consequences we may never have intended. Sometimes our lies take the form of speaking falsehood. Sometimes they are acts of omission where we turn away from the truth because we can’t face it. When we fail to act on a moral impulse, we have to live with a different kind of lie.

Steven Pinker in his new book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, discusses the fact that many moral norms cannot be articulated even if they are intuited. Jonathan Haidt, a psychologist, calls this inability “moral dumbfounding” in describing this curious condition. “Often people have an instant intuition that an action is immoral, and then struggle, often unsuccessfully to come up with reasons why it is immoral.” We may not always have the language to express why something is wrong even when we know that it is, but that should not stop us from responding.

It’s hard to live entangled in deception—both deceptions that are obvious or subtle— whether it’s a lie you told or a truth you choose to turn away from. You may have seen something you didn't want to see in a university shower and neglected to stop it or call the police. You may be running for the highest office in this country and not call it a day even after multiple accusations of harassment have been leveled against you. You may be an employee in an Apple store in Bethesda, Md., who did not lose your job even though you heard something obviously alarming through the thin walls of your store. You did nothing, only to find out later that you could have stopped a murder. You just couldn’t be bothered...And where is our outrage?

The fact that some people obviously could never live in Kushta doesn’t mean that there isn’t room for the rest of us. It depends on how committed we are to truth telling as individuals and what we expect from our families, our peers, our colleagues and our leaders. In a place called Truth there is no room even for little lies, as Rabbi Tabut found out the hard way. It’s time to clean house and figure out where honesty lives.

Dr. Erica Brown (pictured, click to download) is a writer and educator who works as the scholar-in-residence for the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and consults for the Jewish Agency and other Jewish non-profits. She is the author of In the Narrow Places (OU Press/Maggid); Inspired Jewish Leadership, a National Jewish Book Award finalist; Spiritual Boredom; and Confronting Scandal.

Editor’s note: This article is distributed with permission of Dr. Erica Brown. Subscribe to her “Weekly Jewish Wisdom” list at http://leadingwithmeaning.com.

Posted on November 21, 2011 and filed under Torah Commentary.