The Torah extols the value of truth as an absolute virtue. It teaches us to stand firmly away from falsehood. Even though the technical application of this value in Halacha is apparently limited to legal and evidentiary matters, the value of truth in Judaism as a general axiom is unquestioned. Yet the Torah itself allows for the situations when ultimate truth can be harmful and counterproductive to family harmony and social amity.
The Lord Himself, so to speak, does not tell Abraham the entire statement of disbelief of his wife Sarah when the angel informs her of the coming birth of her son Isaac. She wonders aloud how she will become youthfully rejuvenated again and then she adds almost as an afterthought that Abraham is already an old man, apparently incapable of fathering a child. The Lord does not tell Abraham of this statement for it could lead to domestic discord.
"Great is peace," say the rabbis, "for the Lord Himself did not disclose the whole truth to Abraham regarding Sarah's statement." Truth is an absolute value in Judaism but apparently peace and domestic harmony is an even greater absolute value. Truth is a two-edged sword. It can heal but it can destroy just as easily. How and when to wield that sword is a matter of supreme human judgment, often the difference between happiness and despair, if not even life and death itself. There are many examples in the Talmud of this dilemma of the efficacy of employing absolute truth in all circumstances.
The Talmud describes the discussion between the House of Shammai and the House of Hillel regarding the praise and song that should be heaped upon a bride at her wedding celebration. The House of Shammai said that the praise should be proportionate to her real appearance, talents and virtues. The House of Hillel stated that all brides should be described as being beautiful, graceful and of kind nature.
The House of Shammai thereupon questioned this judgment, stating that the Torah bids us to be truthful and to refrain from obvious untruths and exaggerations. The House of Hillel responded: "One who purchases a nonreturnable object from the open market and asks your opinion regarding it, should one praise the purchase or criticize it, thereby causing sadness and ill-feeling?"
Jewish custom and behavior follows the opinion of the House of Hillel. Wisdom and tradition teach us that absolute truth is not always mandatory in every and all circumstances of life. Halacha permits exaggeration and selective truth regarding the contents of eulogies of the deceased. Absolute truth can be searingly painful and terribly divisive in certain situations. The Talmud teaches us that the Lord abhors, so to speak, serial liars. Truth is an absolute value that should be aspired to and cherished in Jewish life. Nevertheless, it should be applied wisely and sometimes even sparingly to uphold the sacredness of harmony and peace in family and community.
The big lie is an unfortunate resident in modern society. All of the totalitarian governments of the last centuries developed the big lie into a permanent art form and a necessary feature of their cruelty toward their own people and others. Propaganda became the lifeline of tyrants and despots.
The big lie struck at Jews more than at any other segment of society in Europe. Both Hitler and Stalin exploited it viciously and murderously. The current Muslim world is nurtured on the big lie regarding Jews, the State of Israel and Western civilization. And as has been so tragically proven, the big lie, repeated often enough and forcefully enough, eventually is accepted by many as truth.
Judaism therefore warns us against being seduced by lies. The Talmud teaches that falsehood eventually will not stand the test of time for it has no real basis to exist and maintain itself. We are taught that truth eventually springs forth from the ground like sproutings from seeds planted deep within the earth. Looking at the surface of the ground, one only sees the falsehoods, the hypocrisies, the big lie that dominates all thought and policies. But deep within the nature of humans is the longing for truths and honesty, transparency and accountability, justice and fairness.
And therefore eventually truth will out and grow and blossom. From the bowels of the earth can be heard the declaration of the descendants of Korah - he who perpetrated the big lie against Moses and Aaron - that "Moses is true and his Torah is true." The struggle for truth continues in our generation as well.
The writer is a noted scholar, historian, speaker and educator.