Being Absolutely Honest

Ethically, are there ever times to lie?

Commentary on Parashat Vayera, Genesis 18:1 - 22:24

We, as parents, tell our children never to lie.

However, as adults we most probably tell white lies fairly often.  “How do I look in this dress?” a wife asks her husband as they walk into a party.  Is that the moment the husband should tell the absolute truth and say—”darling, I hate to tell you, but that dress makes you look fat”? Or should the husband say, “Beautiful—that color brings out your eyes.”   Ethically, are there ever times to lie? Yes. When the truth will hurt someone’s feelings for no good reason.  When a three year old on a city bus, for instance, points to an obese man and says loudly, “Why is that man so fat?,” we surely tell him to hush, even though he is surely telling the truth.

In this week’s Torah portion, Sarah, when she hears that she will bear children, says to herself: “Now that I am withered, am I to have enjoyment, with my husband so old?”  God amended Sarah’s comment when God repeats it to Abraham, telling him that she said, ‘Shall I in truth bear a child, old as I am?’  The tradition understands God’s change, leaving out the part about her husband being so old in order to promote something called “shalom bayit,” peace in the household.

So, where does that leave us with our children? Do we tell them lying is wrong? Or do we give them the more complicated version of the truth, that lying is sometimes necessary to spare someone’s feelings in order to maintain peace? It depends on the age of the child. Younger children can only understand clear rules—never lie—as opposed to it’s o.k. sometimes to lie. But older children begin to understand moral complexity. You can explain the notion of lying for the sake of a greater good. But be careful: this ethic can be dangerous. We can all justify to ourselves that we lied in order to spare someone’s feelings, when the truth is, at times, that we lie because we didn’t have the courage the hard truth requires.

TALK TO YOUR CHILDREN about how destructive lying is, unless there is a special reason to keep feelings from being hurt.


· Can you ever trust people who often lie?

· Why is lying destructive to all concerned?

· Is it ever acceptable not to tell the truth?  If so, when?

· Would it be acceptable to lie if you or someone with you were being threatened?

From “Values and Ethics: Torah Topics for Today,” available from Behrman House Publishers.


Discover More

Dealing With Dishonesty

We can communicate the importance of honesty to our children by being honest ourselves.

Honor Your Parents

The story of Joseph and his brothers is a cautionary tale of parenting and brotherhood.

Listening, or Really Hearing

It can often be difficult to truly hear what others are saying to us.