There is a GEICO ad which asks the question “Was Abe Lincoln honest?” and proceeds to show him struggling to answer his wife’s version of “Does this make me look fat?” Compelled to tell the truth, he can’t get out the words he really should say. Instead he finally says that perhaps it does, just a little.
The ad is actually funny; the damage to a real marriage may not be.
The Torah puts a very high premium on truth-telling, admonishing us to stay far from falsehoods. Yet we also recognize that there are times when it is necessary and even appropriate, to lie – or at the very least, shade the truth.
The above example is of course classic. And the appropriate answer is always “No, you look beautiful.” The Almighty Himself taught us that it is permissible to lie for the sake of peace in the home, to preserve and promote the affection in a marriage. When He told Sarah that she was going to have a child, she laughed and said, “I am old and my husband is old.” Upon repeating the story to Abraham, the Almighty omitted the part about her husband being old – even though he was 99 at the time!
That’s the level of sensitivity we need to have – and the level at which it is permissible to fudge the truth.
In situations like this, if you can give a satisfactory answer without lying, that is certainly better. To the question, “How do I look?” you could respond that you love the color on her without remarking on how much you hate the style.
Peace is also important between friends and it extends from the sublime; Aaron would attempt to restore peace by telling each party to a dispute that the other side really wants to make up, whether they did or not – to the trivial: Imagine a close friend bought a clothing item, final sale only. She asks your opinion and you think she made a poor choice. Since the purchase can not be returned, you do her no favor by sharing your negative response. You can say “I love it!” But if you can say something that is honest, but limited, even better. “I really like the style.” “You are one of the few people who can get away with that color.” “What an amazingly low price you paid.” The same goes for haircuts which also can’t be returned.
It’s best to look for something positive. The Talmud tells the story of a rabbi walking with his students when they came upon a dead dog. They responded with the Aramaic versions of “Oooh, gross, disgusting.” But their teacher suggested, “He has nice white teeth.” It is better for our character if we can find something like that to say but the higher value is not hurting our friend.
It is also permissible to distort the truth to save someone from shame. Perhaps you know of a family that needs some financial help to send one of their children to school. They would be mortified to be the recipients of charity. You could create a fictional scholarship as a way of giving them money. Saving them from embarrassment trumps the absolute truth. This also applies to humiliating incidents in someone’s past; you can lie to avoid revealing such information.
In the world at large, talk shows and reality TV have destroyed most people’s sense of privacy. They really have no clear ideas of appropriate boundaries and are constantly stepping over the line. “Are you expecting?” “How about your daughter?” “Are you dating anyone? Who? How’s it going?” “How much did that diamond necklace cost? How could you afford it?” Yes, these are real questions that people ask.
This invasive approach is completely inappropriate. In keeping with the Jewish sense of privacy and dignity, you can lie (or not reveal the truth) in answer to these and similar queries.
There are other situations where “a little white lie” may be called for. Perhaps you have a guest staying over. Perhaps they are, in fact, sleeping in one of your children’s room while the resentful, displaced child is sharing a room with her siblings. “It’s not a problem,” you can reassure your guest, “they love squishing together; it’s like one big pajama party.”
The quest for peace, common sense, sensitivity – and a good rabbi – should be our guidelines. Another helpful tool is to ask ourselves “Do I feel comfortable explaining this to my children or even asking them to participate in the deception?” I think we will discover that if the goal is to help or protect someone else, there are occasions where a falsehood is permitted and our children understand. If the goal is to protect ourselves, then they won’t understand and they are correct.
Ultimately the goal remains truth. But the very real emotional needs of those we care about cannot be discounted.