Truth and Fiction

"This is the punishment of the liar – even when he speaks the truth no one believes him." -The Talmud (BT Sanhedrin 89b)


Credibility is hard to earn and easy to lose. Tell one lie, and a relationship that you have invested in for years may be compromised. The Talmud understood this problem all too well and condemned the liar to the greatest punishment: a tarnished reputation. The liar can speak the God-honest-truth, and we still have our doubts. As frustrating as this is for the liar with truth finally on his lips, we can hardly blame those once subjected to falsehood for harboring questions.

The Path of the Just was written in 1738 by the Italian scholar, Rabbi Moses Hayyim Luzzato as work of ethical guidance and character development. It has a long and illustrious history of study, prepping readers on the intricacies of saintliness and humility. Rabbi Luzzato did not take the Talmudic punishment of liars at face value. Instead, he parsed the “work” of liars into various categories, from the mild to the outrageous, understanding that lying often begins on a continuum of truth. Therein lies its greatest danger.liar

Lying is understandable on many levels. I once caught one of my children in a lie at the age of six. “But why did you lie to me?” I asked, even though the offense was minor. “Because I didn’t want you to be upset.” We often lie because we want to protect ourselves and others. Sometimes we convince ourselves that a white lie never harms; it only helps smooth rough waters. It may even be good to lie. It is not always easy to explain that while a lie may prevent hurt to someone else, it begins to hurt us. We stop being seen as truth-tellers.

Rabbi Luzzato mentions another piece of Talmudic wisdom: that liars are included in a class of people who “are not received into the presence of God.” If honesty is a hallmark of the divine, then lying puts a person outside of God’s inner circle.

Just how wide is that circle? Rabbi Luzzato mentions that there are people who lie for a living, to promote business or to be counted among the wise. There are others who lie, not because they manufacture stories, but because “when they give an account of something true” they interlace it with lies. “They habituate themselves to this practice to the point where it becomes part of their nature,” following the prophet Jeremiah’s warning: “They have taught their tongues to speak falsehood. They have become weary with wrong” (9:4).

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Dr. Erica Brown is the Director for Adult Education at The Partnership for Jewish Life and Learning and consults for The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. She is an author-winning author and the recipient of the 2009 Covenant Award. Erica has served as an adjunct professor at American University and George Washington University. She lectures on subjects of Jewish interest and leadership.

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