A reader writes:
A while ago I did one of those genetic testing services that gives you ancestry and health information. My results showed, as I expected, that I was 50% Ashkenazi Jewish and the rest mostly German, French and general Northern European. My father is Jewish, my mother was not Jewish when she was born.
Not long ago, a nephew had the testing done with the same service; one would have expected him to be roughly 25% Ashkenazi Jewish, reflecting his one Jewish grandparent. Instead, he showed as 25% Italian, with no Ashkenazi Jewish at all.
The inescapable conclusion is that his mother, my sister, is not actually my full sister – our mother apparently took a secret to the grave regarding the paternity of my sister.
What do we do with this information? Is it the ethically proper thing to share the information with my father, the man my sister thought was also her father? He’s now in his 80s. No one is expecting to inherit anything from him, so there are no financial considerations weighing in on whether to share or withhold information. But does he deserve to know the truth?
It’s true that the Jewish tradition in general has a very strong bias in favor of telling the truth. In the Ten Commandments we are charged: “Do not respond as a vain or false witness.” In Exodus 23:7 we are commanded, “Stay far from a false matter.” The Book of Proverbs teaches us, “Truthful speech abides forever, a lying tongue for but a moment.” The prophet Zecharia tells us that one of the things we are to do is “speak the truth to one another.” The great Mark Twain counseled us, “When in doubt, tell the truth.”
We do, however, also acknowledge that telling the truth is not always an absolute value. We have the example in the Torah of God Himself concealing information. When God told Sarah she was going to give birth to a child, she laughed and said to herself, “Now that I’m worn out, I’m going to have the pleasure of a son? And my husband is old!” But when God reported the conversation to Abraham, he left out the part about “and my husband is old,” presumably to spare Abraham’s feelings. From this, the rabbis teach us that it’s permissible to withhold information for the sake of shalom bayit, for peace in the home.
Whenever considering withholding information, the most important consideration is “why?” Is it to benefit the one keeping the secret, or is it truly for the benefit of the one being kept in the dark?
In this case, especially since there are no financial considerations, it’s better to withhold the information. Sharing it could only cause pain to the father; and since he raised both you and your sister, he is certainly her father, regardless of where your sister’s genetic material came from. Your mother apparently wanted to take this secret to the grave with her, and it’s better to honor that wish, to the extent possible. It’s also possible your father already knows, and he doesn’t want to talk about it.
On the other hand, if you discovered the information on your own by comparing your DNA with your nephew’s, and your sister didn’t know, it would be appropriate to share it with her. There are many medical conditions that have a genetic component, and it could be important for her to know about her biological father.
There are circumstances that could make the decision a bit murkier. If your father, for example, should ask, “So, did you learn anything interesting in that DNA test you took?” withholding the information would involve a flat-out lie, not simply concealment. One could say, “Yes, but I don’t want to talk about it,” which would no doubt raise a paternal eyebrow.
If there was an inheritance at stake, and there was a concern that Dad had some very backward ideas on the nature of being a father and he might disown the innocent daughter, it’s wrong to withhold the information, even if you disagree with his reprehensible views on fatherhood. As Sissela Bok pointed out in her important book Lying, telling such a lie is a transfer of power from the one being lied to in favor of the one lying. The victim loses the ability to make an informed choice. In such a case, he has a right to the information. And if the other heirs disagreed with his decision, they could always give some of their inheritance to the disowned daughter.
When signing up with a genetic testing service, you’re asked if you want to share your information to find genetic relatives. Sometimes this can be great: a friend found a half-brother he didn’t know he had, and they’ve now developed a good relationship. On the other hand, it’s definitely a double-edged sword: you might learn information you’d have been happier not knowing. But once you’ve learned it, there’s no way to change your mind and “unlearn” it. The truth does not always set you free.
The writer, a rabbi and businessman, answers ethical questions from readers, guided by Halacha, philosophy and common sense. Dividing his time between Jerusalem and the US, he writes about ethics at ethics.neshamah.net/. Readers are invited to submit ethical dilemmas to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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