News spirituality Torah

Reading Between the Lies: Religion, Truthfulness and Nuance

It’s easy to jump to the wrong conclusion when religion goes under the social science microscope. Consider a recent survey from the Pew Research Center. The survey, “Religion in Everyday Life,”[1] does a good job examining differences in belief and behavior between “highly religious” and “not highly religious” people. But one observation about the faithful and truth telling calls for a more nuanced conversation.

The report finds that “highly religious people” are generally happier with life, more involved with extended family, more likely to volunteer, read the Bible, donate money, time or goods to help the poor, attend religious services, rest on the Sabbath, and rely on prayer when making personal decisions. Beyond these differences, there are similarities: Members of both groups tend to get the same amount of exercise, make as many socially conscious consumer decisions, lose their temper as often, recycle as much – and to the point of truth and falsehood – admit to telling little white lies: 39% of “highly religious” admitted to telling a little lie in the previous week, as opposed to 45% of “not highly religious.” That’s a six percent difference; enough to make a winner out of a presidential candidate, but not very much in this kind of study. We can say that 4 in ten surveyed people – highly religious or not – told a white lie in ANY given week.

It might be surprising to hear that highly religious people lie so often, especially since many of the surveyed highly religious people called “being honest all the time” “essential.” You’d expect more honesty from religious folks – “They should practice what they faiths preach!” – but not so fast. We have to “read between the lies.” To be sure, truth telling is “essential,” yet my faith and others also affirms that that telling a lie – little or big – may well be the moral thing to do. Here’s an example.

Let’s say you’ve looked forward to a good friend’s wedding and the day has finally arrived. You’re at the reception, and, as much as you love your friend, this wedding, like any other, is not perfect – it could be the food, the band or any of a number of things. Nevertheless, when the wedding couple comes to your table and asks, “Are you having a good time?”  you reply with an enthusiastic “Today is absolutely perfect!”

Now that’s not the biggest lie a person could tell. The point is that Judaism teaches that kind of lie is no sin, and I am sure that many other faithful would agree.

Centuries ago, the disciples of Rabbi Hillel and Rabbi Shammai apparently faced a similar wedding question, when a bride – or groom for that matter –  must have asked, “How do I look?”  Shammai, stickler for the letter of the law, instructs the wedding guest to speak of “a bride as she is.” Be honest, for better or for worse. But Hillel has a different opinion. Tell her she’s “a beautiful and graceful bride.” Be positive. Be polite.

In response, Shammai points to the book of Exodus (23:7) – “Keep far from falsehood” – and insists truth be told, regardless. Now, Hillel knows what the book of Exodus says and he doesn’t need a reminder. Hillel believes in the moral good of a lie told to prevent hurt feelings. And the Talmud goes on to say that “From this the Sages concluded that a person should always conduct oneself in a pleasant manner” as when speaking with a groom or bride. (Ketubot 16b -17a) So don’t come to the wrong conclusion: There may be no inconsistency when “highly religious people” preach honestly yet practice lying that serves a higher goal, such as sparing someone’s feelings, saving a life, or keeping the peace. To the point of the recently released survey, we have to keep an eye open to nuance with discussing religion, truth and falsehood. Yes, those who are highly religious and those who are not may appear to lie to a similar degree, but that religious person’s lie is different when it honors a faith teaching that insists a particular kind of little lie serves higher moral good.

So there may be nothing at all hypocritical when religious folks call truthfulness “essential” and then go out and tell little lies. Jewish tradition and other faith teachings – along with common sense – recognize that a little lie can have a positive impact.

Rabbi Dennis S. Ross, MSW, serves East End Temple in New York City.