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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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.