Truth and Peace: Should One Pass On Negative Comments?
Truthfulness is valued by the Jewish tradition, but it is not the sole, supreme value.
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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