Ethical will: Truth

Following my previous ‘ethical will’ entry on ‘listening’ and the profoundly divisive aftermath of the 2020 U.S. Presidential elections, which once again reveals a country broken jaggedly in half, I’ve been thinking a lot about the pervasive lack of trust that has come to typify today’s global politics.

Yes, we must listen to one another earnestly, but why don’t we?

Fundamentally, it comes down to a lack of trust. Americans don’t trust one another to have their best interests at heart, nor do they trust their public institutions, nor the fourth estate. Why were the pre-election polls so drastically wrong this year, particularly following the pollsters’ epic embarrassment of 2016? Whence the preposterous, gaping chasm between Americans, policymakers, and opinion-molders?

We don’t trust others to tell us the truth; or perhaps we no longer trust in those truths, which are most available. Access to information used to be conveniently provided to the people by big money interests and power brokers, which used to work for them beautifully, but the modern information age has left them nary a shadow to hide in.

Personally, I find myself increasingly turning to independent and conflicting news sources across the political spectrum to calibrate my impression of reality. More often than not, I remain unconvinced by them all.

Truth is a challenging subject for me because I am the sort who has to push through cowardice to speak it. Still, truthfulness is something that I admired in my father, continue to admire in my mother, and admire in all of my role models. Truth impresses, challenges, and scares me.

The first entry in my ‘ethical will’ focused on being true to one’s self… but what about being honest with others? While I am hardly the most qualified to expound upon this particular ideal, it would be negligent of me to omit it from my will.

What priority should we place on honesty, and what limits might we consider?

According to the Torah we are to distance ourselves from matters/words of falsehood, the only sin from which the Torah warns us to “distance” ourselves (Exodus 23:7):

מִדְּבַר-שֶׁקֶר, תִּרְחָק; וְנָקִי וְצַדִּיק אַל-תַּהֲרֹג, כִּי לֹא-אַצְדִּיק רָשָׁע. Keep thee far from a false matter; and the innocent and righteous slay thou not; for I will not justify the wicked.

Taking a different tack, the Book of Proverbs (a later book of the Hebrew Bible) provides practical counsel on the matter, rather than commanding us (12:19):

שְׂפַת-אֱמֶת, תִּכּוֹן לָעַד; וְעַד-אַרְגִּיעָה, לְשׁוֹן שָׁקֶר. The lip of truth shall be established for ever; a lying tongue is for a moment.

As expected, truth is a popular theme in Jewish tradition, as I imagine it would be in all faith traditions that lay claim to its mantle, which is to say: all of them. Another popular, oft-cited Jewish text on truth can be found in the Talmud (Tractate Shabbat, 55a):

… ור”ל אמר תיו סוף חותמו של הקב”ה דאמר רבי חנינא חותמו של הקב”ה אמת אמר ר’ שמואל בר נחמני אלו בני אדם שקיימו את התור’ כולה מאלף ועד תיו… … and [Rabbi] Resh Lakish said: [The letter] ‘tav’ [which is the final letter of the alphabet] is the end of the seal of the Holy One, blessed be He, for R. Hanina said: The seal of the Holy One, blessed be He, is emeth [truth] [which ends with a ‘tav’]. R. Samuel b. Nahmani said: It denotes the people who fulfilled the Torah from ‘alef’ [the first letter of the alphabet] to ‘tav’…

I won’t belabor the point further, for it’s the simplest of truths:

People of decency
ought to strive for truth.

But – are there limits? There must be some, right?

The Jewish textual tradition often impresses me with its good sense, which is one of the reasons that I remain drawn to it. One of the most famous examples of a lie, which is not only permitted but actually encouraged, arose from a dispute between the renowned ancient Houses of the Rabbis Hillel and Shammai, which the House of Hillel won (Talmud, Tractate Ketubot 16b-17a):

תנו רבנן כיצד מרקדין לפני הכלה בית שמאי אומרים כלה כמות שהיא ובית הלל אומרים כלה נאה וחסודה אמרו להן ב”ש לב”ה הרי שהיתה חיגרת או סומא אומרי’ לה כלה נאה וחסודה והתורה אמרה (שמות כג) מדבר שקר תרחק אמרו להם ב”ה לב”ש לדבריכם מי שלקח מקח רע מן השוק ישבחנו בעיניו או יגננו בעיניו הוי אומר ישבחנו בעיניו מכאן אמרו חכמים לעולם תהא דעתו של אדם מעורבת עם הבריות Our Rabbis taught: How does one dance before the bride? The House of Shammai say: The bride as she is. And The House of Hillel say: ‘Beautiful and graceful bride’! The House of Shammai said to the House of Hillel: If she was lame or blind, does one say of her: ‘Beautiful and graceful bride’? Whereas the Torah said, ‘Keep thee far from a false matter’ (Ex. 23:7). Said the House of Hillel to the House of Shammai: According to your words, if one has made a bad purchase in the market, should one praise it in his eyes or depreciate it? Surely, one should praise it in his eyes. Therefore, the Sages said: Always should the disposition of man be pleasant with people.

Even more broadly, the Jewish tradition teaches us that we may “modify a statement” for the sake of peace, based upon God’s behavior in the story of Abraham and Sarah. The sage Rashi (1040-1105) picked up on a nuance in these two verses (Gen. 18:13-14):

יב. וַתִּצְחַק שָׂרָה, בְּקִרְבָּהּ לֵאמֹר: אַחֲרֵי בְלֹתִי הָיְתָה-לִּי עֶדְנָה, וַאדֹנִי זָקֵן? 12. And Sarah laughed to herself, saying: ‘After I am withered shall I have pleasure, my husband being old?’
יג. וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה, אֶל-אַבְרָהָם: לָמָּה זֶּה צָחֲקָה שָׂרָה לֵאמֹר, הַאַף אֻמְנָם אֵלֵד–וַאֲנִי זָקַנְתִּי? 13. And the LORD said unto Abraham: ‘Wherefore did Sarah laugh, saying: Shall I of a surety bear a child, old as I am?

Rashi pointed out that when speaking to Abraham, following His promise to Sarah, God changed Sarah’s words so her husband would not know that she had been laughing at his old age. The lesson derived from the distinction between these two verses was also underscored in the Talmud (Tractate Yevamot 65b):

וא”ר אילעא משום רבי אלעזר בר’ שמעון מותר לו לאדם לשנות בדבר השלום… דבי רבי ישמעאל תנא גדול השלום שאף הקדוש ברוך הוא שינה בו דמעיקרא כתיב (בראשית יח) ואדוני זקן ולבסוף כתיב ואני זקנתי: R. Ile’a further stated in the name of R. Eleazar son of R. Simeon: One may modify a statement in the interests of peace… At the School of R. Ishmael it was taught: Great is the cause of peace. Seeing that for its sake even the Holy One, blessed be He, modified a statement; for at first it is written, My husband being old, while afterwards it is written, And I am old.

It seems that the Jewish tradition approaches the ideal of speaking the truth very sensibly. After all, we are only human, and so few of our relationships in this world work out tidily. Telling the truth is an ideal that we should always aim for, and the acceptable exceptions to this rule are only for the sakes of other people. Even then, we ought to be wary, for in my personal experience, the road to hell is truly paved with good intentions.

My Papa was a man of the utmost integrity, but he was also a very practical man. Ultimately, I remember him prioritizing the golden rule above all else.

In my childhood, he was always disappointed in me for my falsehoods and deceptions, but mostly because of how my lack of consideration for others (including him and Mama) reflected upon my character. Suffice it to say that I wasn’t lying for the sake of peace, as the Talmud would have it.

Thinking through this now, I’m not at all sure of the best balance between truth and intention, which I suppose is ultimately a situational matter. Nobody ever said that being a moral person is easy.

I am wondering which of these is at the root of our increasing lack of trust in our leaders and institutions… perhaps a bit of both?

43 thoughts on “Ethical will: Truth”

    1. Honestly, I’m into truth – to the extent that I can identify it… I’m no expert, but I don’t know what else I can do in order to find it… 🤷🏻‍♂️

  1. I haven’t trusted our (US) election process since 2000. Actually, my distrust probably began in 1980 when we elected an actor. I think most Americans view the President as a figure head. But Trump sure has signed a ton of Executive Orders.
    I so hear you about morality and truth. Problem is most only see one side of a coin and act like the other side doesn’t exist. There are many layers of “truth.”

  2. This is a very good piece of wisdom. The problem with truth is there are so many perspectives that truth gets lost in the proving of rightness!
    I love the idea of an ethical will!

    1. Thank you for the kind response 🙂

      I learned about the concept of an ethical will during my year of mourning for my father, and I also really loved the idea. And (to be honest) since it was originally a Jewish concept, and since I am a dorky Jew, I loved the idea even more.

      So when I created my blog here on WordPress, I knew that one of the sections would be ‘Ethical Will’ – I don’t expect to die any time soon (although, of course, we never know…), but I want to get my values and thoughts down for our daughter and any future children than we may have –

      And, as they say, there’s no time like the present!

  3. I appreciate your post. 👏🏼 As a former teacher of journalism, I always stressed how important active listening is and that relaying truthful and accurate information was an absolute expectation and responsibility. I also used the same quote by Mark Twain, along with many others, to extend my lessons.

      1. If you search Thomas Jefferson, you will find many, but here is one:

        “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
        ― Thomas Jefferson

  4. My youngest brother called me today and told me he trusts me and that I’m the only person in the family he trusts. Hard to know how to respond to that. He then told me that because he just can’t trust most people he is starting out on an all out pursuit of wealth and looking out for himself as number one. Honestly this has been his thing for a long time already and was no revelation to me. I explained to him that the reason he can trust me is because I don’t look out for number one. I would suffer and go without for his sake. Unfortunately I can’t trust him because he will kick me to the curb if supporting me during a difficult time is not advantageous for him. When people started with their “America first” and “make America great” nonsense they began to destroy America because they began to destroy trust at home and abroad. Survival at any price means at the price of trust and at the price of others. Sacrifice on behalf of others makes room for truth. I was already ranting about this before I saw your post. Thanks for giving me a place to drop my rant.

  5. I read classics at the impressionable age of eleven. The advice that was given stuck with me for life:
    “Only slaves lie, free people, tell the truth.”


    1. You know, for Jews the holiday of “freedom” is Passover… and many modern day commentaries bring up the question of what it is that we are “enslaved to” today, given that most of live as “free” people. Money, for example.

      Your quote is incredibly apt. Thank you so much, Joanna!

  6. Being always honest and truthful means that most people will trust you, most people will understand you and most people will love you. Unfortunately, there will always be those who will twist the truth, those who we say here “cannot lie straight in bed”.

  7. David, this is such a brilliant post (no word of a lie!).

    I love the quote in the image that accompanies the post. Brilliant. And the whole question of whether we should always tell the truth is fascinating. Interestingly, I wonder whether if someone were to say to a bride, “you are ugly and your dress is repulsive” this would actually do any harm? I mean, I know that it’s the kind thing hardly anyone would say out loud, even if they thought it. But if people did always share their thoughts openly, would it be liberating, or would it cause emotional distress?

    If someone were to say to me, “you look ugly, Steven”, it honestly wouldn’t offend me at all. I would appreciate their honesty. I would probably smile or even laugh. I’m therefore inclined to think we should be honest in all situations. I think it’s hiding our thoughts that causes distance and bad feeling, whereas sharing the truth brings reconciliation, and I think people generally respect the courage in honesty.

    But it isn’t so black and white, because there are degrees of truthfulness. I might say, “I went into the kitchen to get a glass of water”. But I didn’t say, “I went in the kitchen, took a glass out of the cupboard, turned on the tap, switched off the tap”, etc. Is the latter statement more truthful? Interestingly, in some courts people vow to tell “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth”. But can we ever really tell “the whole truth”?

    I know that telling the truth, for me, when I am brave enough to do it, makes my life easier. It feels as though if I tell the truth in every situation, then I never have to worry about anything, because there is no misunderstanding, and it’s misunderstanding that causes emotional distress.

    But what if people who are in positions of power over us are full of wickedness and lies? Should we still be obedient to them if they are lying? This is a really tough call. I think my understanding is that we should always speak the truth, because if we fear God, we fear God’s judgement upon us more than anything any human being could say or do. And I think there is a lot in the Christian Scriptures that suggests that to be honest is to be godly (this article is quite interesting in terms of Bible references, though I didn’t read it in its entirety yet, I might go back to it).

    In my past as an atheist, I used to lie constantly. Little white lies about everything. It definitely made a lot of situations a lot easier. But since I came to believe in God, I find that my conscience is transformed, and I find it really difficult to lie.

    I was just going to sign off, saying “out of respect for your comments section I will end there”. But then I thought more deeply about whether or not I should stop typing. Because if I’m being HONEST, I think I’m making some really good points that you will enjoy reading! (Crikey, I would never normally say that out loud out of fear of being egotistical!).

    Anyway, the last thing I will say is that I’m going to pray to God in response to your post to try and discern His will in terms of whether lying is ever justifiable. And I’m also going to reblog or link to your post because I think it’s brilliant.

    Love you, friend! (A final honest thing is that I’m conflicted about whether or not I should call you ‘friend’ or ‘brother’ because I don’t know whether to refer to non-Christians as ‘brother’. Is my honesty here helpful to you? It certainly feels good to have explained it). But now my comment is really long. And now I am worried about being disrespectful, so I will stop 😀

    1. Steven, I love this comment of yours. Deeply meaningful to me – thank you! Also I am so moved that you actually saw fit to share my post. It’s humbling.

      Beginning with the end of your comment, I actually smiled at the honesty you wrote with regarding the distinction between “friend” and “brother”. In that regard, I don’t mind how you choose to refer to me, and I respect how that distinction can be of meaning to you. In Israel, colloquially, many Israeli Jews refer to one another as brothers and refer to Arabs as our cousins. Personally, I don’t refer to anybody as my brother (other than my brother) because it doesn’t seem to fit my way of expressing myself.

      Working backwards through your comment, I’ll add that you were quite correct – you DID make a lot of terrific points, and I’ll go even further by saying that I love the inter-religious dialogue we’ve been having. It’s illuminating and thought-provoking for me. And – to tie this thought into my previous one – I’ll add that I generally find more in common with other people who actively engage with searching for truth (like you) more than I do with people of my own tradition who accept it hook, line, and sinker.

      I think that’s it for now… but I want you to know that I so love having you here with me.

      1. Your comment makes me very happy, thanks David! I have enjoyed and am enjoying our engagements so much. I love the attention to detail and honesty in your posts and comments, and everything I’m learning about your traditions 🙂 Glad you understand about the ‘brother’ thing, and it’s interesting that you refer to Arabs as cousins 🙂 Take care and chat soon!

  8. I’m so deeply moved by the brave heart to speak on these matters of truth in a profoundly honest and articulate letter.
    The earth is flooded with lies, we say confusion is a liar, yes a liar and he is very much alive. How we have succumb to these lies and clouded truth.
    We are all affected whether we like it or not by the division and the untruthfulness in American society, and yet God willed it to be given to us at this time. Whether we are American or not every institution of their lives have affected our lives and these institutions have decided what is truth on a global scale to impact our lives. Shackled and bounded we are in a rut because we cannot speak our own truth because we were given a truth and shut up our hearts, the chamber of our own truth for a given dream
    Yes yes the response will be…..there was a time.
    But here is a breath of fresh air not to stand each other’s midst and feel stultified but breathe , be brave enough to listen and breathe our truth.

        1. Wow; I don’t think I was thinking about it that way… I was mostly writing down my thoughts for myself and for my daughter to read some day when she is older 🧔🏻👧🏻

  9. A nice post as usual. It is really difficult to find an independent news agency nowadays. But I liked your views on truth, particularly the way you substantiate with the help of quotes from scriptures. Our scripture also says, “सत्यमेव जयते” which means “Truth alone triumphs.” It is however also said that “सत्यं ब्रूयात् प्रियं ब्रूयात्, मा ब्रूयात् सत्यमप्रियम् ” which means “speak truth, speak sweet, but don’t speak unpleasant truth.”

  10. I opine: liars indict themselves after their facts have been disproven by time as mere bias propaganda. Many Americans have learn to follow these same liars only for the purpose of reversing whatever these liars are touting as truth. They also make for a good laugh after the’ve been disproven and try to blame others why they were so wrong. You pay someone enough money, and they will compose whatever you desire.

    1. Many Americans have learn to follow these same liars only for the purpose of reversing whatever these liars are touting as truth.

      That’s an interesting idea…

      Of course, there are those who actually believe the liars too!

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