Truth and Peace: Should One Pass On Negative Comments?

Truthfulness is valued by the Jewish tradition, but it is not the sole, supreme value.

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Reprinted with permission from The Book of Jewish Values, published by Bell Tower.

 A woman I know, whose father had died, had long planned to have her older brother escort her down the aisle at her wedding. However, a short time before the event, her sister informed her of something she had heard the brother say: "Carol's a very sweet girl, but David is much more accomplished than she is. I'm afraid he’s going to get bored with her." Devastated by these words, Carol refused to walk down the aisle with her brother; now, years later, their relationship is almost nonexistent. 

Some time later I ran into the sister, and asked about the incident. She told me that she had been talking with her sister, and the comment just “slipped out”; she thought her sister was entitled to know just what her brother thought of her.

The sister’s response, a standard justification offered by those who pass on hurtful comments, sounds logical: Shouldn’t we know if people who act warmly when they are with us say unkind things when we are not present?

But the brother’s one comment did not express his full opinion of his sister. And her sister certainly had never bothered to pass on all the complimentary things he had said about her. While his comment may have been unkind, in truth almost all of us have said insensitive things about people we love. As Blaise Pascal, the great seventeenth-century French philosopher, wrote: "I lay it down as a fact that if all men knew what others say of them, there would not be four friends in the world."

women sharing secretsMark Twain highlighted the pain caused by people who pass on hurtful comments: “It takes your enemy and your friend, working together, to hurt you to the quick; the one to slander you and the other to get the news to you.”

The Torah teaches how wrong it is to pass on hurtful comments, and the one who refrains from doing so is God Himself. Genesis 18 tells of three angels who came to Abraham’s house to inform him that Sarah, his elderly wife, would give birth to her first child a year later. Standing some distance from the angels, Sarah heard their comment and laughed to herself, saying, "Now that I am withered, am I to have [the] enjoyment [of having a child], with my husband so old?"

A verse later, God appears to Abraham and says to him, "Why did Sarah laugh, saying 'Shall I in truth bear a child, old as I am?'"

The rabbis of the Talmud were struck by what God said—and did not say. In transmitting the substance of Sarah's statement, He left out her final words, "with my husband so old." Abraham was in fact old, but God apparently feared that he would resent Sarah saying so, in a manner that he might have regarded as dismissive.

The Talmud concludes from this incident, "Great is peace, seeing that for its sake even God modified the truth"(Babylonian Talmud, Yevamot 65b).

Of course, there are instances in which it is important to pass on negative comments. Let's say you hear someone accuse a person you know to be honest of acting dishonestly. Not only should you dispute the accusation, but you should also warn the person who is being slandered. But such cases are relatively rare; unless there is a constructive reason to pass on a negative comment, you should not do so.

While Jewish ethics normally forbids lying, you are permitted to be less than honest when someone asks you, "What did so-and-so say about me?" When you know the response will provoke hurt or animosity, you are permitted to speak as God spoke to Abraham, relating some details and omitting others. If you are pressed for more information, Jewish ethics teaches that you can answer that the person said nothing critical. In short, when no constructive purpose is served by being truthful, peace is valued more highly than truth.

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Rabbi Joseph Telushkin

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin is the author of Jewish Literacy and Words that Hurt, Words that Heal, along with other widely-read books on Judaism and the "Rabbi Daniel Winter" murder mysteries. He lives in New York City and lectures widely throughout North America.