Lying With A Life At Stake

Some have argued that lying is never permissible. What if a human life hung in the balance?

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

 Some of the greatest figures in Christian theology and Western thought have argued that lying is always wrong, even when life is at stake.

Saint Augustine, the great fourth-century Church Father (in his treatise “On Lying”) argued that lying bars one from eternal life; hence, it makes no sense to give up one’s place in the next world to save another life if it means having to lie: “Does he not speak most perversely who says that one person ought to die spiritually, so another may live? …Since, then, eternal life is lost by lying, a lie may never be told for the preservation of the temporal life of another.”

Some fifteen hundred years after Saint Augustine, Immanuel Kant, in an effort to establish a universally binding secular ethic, also condemned all lying, whatever the circumstances. Thus, Kant taught (in his Critique of Practical Reason) that if a man fleeing for his life is hiding in our house, and the would-be murderer asks whether “our friend who is pursued by him has taken refuge in our house,” we are forbidden to lie or mislead him.

In Judaism’s view, one who would tell a truth that would enable a would-be murderer to kill an innocent person would bear a grave moral responsibility. Kant had a low regard for Judaism and so had no interest in what it taught. However, he was a German, and his thinking made a particularly deep and enduring impact in his native country. As philosopher Sissela Bok notes (in her book, Lying), a German ship captain who was hiding Jews from the Nazis, and was confronted by a Nazi vessel whose commander demanded to know if any Jews were aboard, would have been forbidden, by Kant’s reasoning, from lying to the Nazis.

Truth, as Judaism teaches, is a high value but not an absolute one.

The first chapter of Exodus describes the effort by Pharaoh to eliminate the Israelites by drowning their firstborn male babies in the Nile. He appoints Shifra and Puah, two midwives, to carry out this task. But the midwives fear God and, instead of killing the babies, help save them.

Pharaoh, distressed to learn that his murderous campaign is being thwarted, summons the midwives and demands to know why they have disobeyed his order. The Bible tells us that the two women tell Pharaoh a lie: “The Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women: they are vigorous. Before the midwives can come to them, they have given birth” (Exodus 1:19).

Did the Bible feel the midwives’ response was cowardly, and dislike the fact that they lied?

Not at all. The subsequent verses tell us that God “dealt well” with the midwives, and established “households” (large families) for them. In other words, the midwives were right for saving the Israelite infants and for lying to Pharaoh.

In a later incident, God Himself is depicted as instructing a prophet to save himself by telling a lie. Thus, when God tells the prophet Samuel to anoint David as king in lieu of Saul, Samuel is horrified. If Saul learns of what he is doing, the kind will have him executed. God instructs Samuel to tell Saul a lie, that he is making his trip to offer a special sacrifice to God, and not to mention his real purpose (see I Samuel 16).

Of course, God could have told Samuel to tell Saul the truth, and assure the prophet that He would protect him, but instead He tells him to lie. From this, we learn that we should also lie to thwart would-be killers, and not tell them the truth and rely on God to save us.

There are rare instances in which Judaism instructs one to be a martyr. For example, if you can save your life only by killing an innocent person, you are forbidden to do so, and should allow yourself to be killed rather than kill. However, Jewish law condemns as foolish and immoral both telling the truth to an evil person and thereby enabling him to go on doing evil, or telling the truth to an evil person that leads to your murder.

Truth is a high value; the saving of innocent life is a higher one.

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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.