Credibility is hard to earn and easy to lose. Tell one lie, and a relationship that you have invested in for years may be compromised. The Talmud understood this problem all too well and condemned the liar to the greatest punishment: a tarnished reputation. The liar can speak the God-honest-truth, and we still have our doubts. As frustrating as this is for the liar with truth finally on his lips, we can hardly blame those once subjected to falsehood for harboring questions.
Italian scholar Rabbi Moses Hayyim Luzzato wrote The Path of the Just in 1738 as a work of ethical guidance and character development. It has a long and illustrious history of study, prepping readers on the intricacies of saintliness and humility. Rabbi Luzzato did not take the Talmudic punishment of liars at face value. Instead, he parsed the “work” of liars into various categories, from the mild to the outrageous, understanding that lying often begins on a continuum of truth. Therein lies its greatest danger.
Lying is understandable on many levels. I once caught one of my children in a lie at the age of six. “But why did you lie to me?” I asked, even though the offense was minor. “Because I didn’t want you to be upset.” We often lie because we want to protect ourselves and others. Sometimes we convince ourselves that a white lie never harms; it only helps smooth rough waters. It may even be good to lie. It is not always easy to explain that while a lie may prevent hurt to someone else, it begins to hurt us. We stop being seen as truth-tellers.
Rabbi Luzzato mentions another piece of Talmudic wisdom: that liars are included in a class of people who “are not received into the presence of God.” If honesty is a hallmark of the divine, then lying puts a person outside of God’s inner circle.
Just how wide is that circle? Rabbi Luzzato mentions that there are people who lie for a living, to promote business or to be counted among the wise. There are others who lie, not because they manufacture stories, but because “when they give an account of something true” they interlace it with lies. “They habituate themselves to this practice to the point where it becomes part of their nature,” following the prophet Jeremiah’s warning: “They have taught their tongues to speak falsehood. They have become weary with wrong” (9:4).
We have another word for these kinds of lies that have become a cultural reality in many Jewish communities and schools: exaggeration. OMG. I am so sick I could die. That job is killing me. You’ll never believe what happened to me last night! Every sentence deserves an exclamation point. We’re living on the edge. But we’re really not. Or what about the odd expression, “I’m not going to lie to you.” Well, that’s a relief.
We usually exaggerate because it entertains. In fact, the Talmud itself has a language for this sort of tale—a guzma. Elephants cannot go through the eye of a needle. Nevertheless, sometimes it becomes hard to distinguish the kernel of truth in the packaging of humor. And, as The Path of the Just warns, we can become habituated to forms of speech that are permanently altered by these kinds of lies. They are not malicious. They may be a good laugh, but over time, they hurt the reputation of the teller because the listener cannot separate truth from fiction.
Rabbi Luzzato alerts us to a subtle verb choice in Exodus 23:7, the verse that warns us to distance ourselves from falsehood. The verse does not say to guard oneself against lying but to restrain or withdraw ourselves from it in order to “awaken us” to the vigilance we must achieve in fighting falsehood. And in the end, no one suffers more from lying than the liar himself.
Dr. Erica Brown 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.