You are visiting with a friend. She has just returned from a trip abroad, and she brings down a new dress she purchased while traveling.
You immediately notice that the color does not suit her. It is also too big and poorly designed. You simply find it terribly ugly.
And then she tells you how much loves it. She loves the color and the fit. She also mentions that it cost upward of $1000. She says, “What do you think? Don’t you love it?”
What do you say? You know your friend values your opinion. You also know that she loves the dress and has no possibility of returning. She will be devastated if you tell her what you think. How should you respond?
We have all been there. My guess is that most of us would smile and say, “It looks great.” We might feel a bit guilty. We might later tell ourselves that we should have been more honest.
Yet, from the perspective of Jewish values, we could tell ourselves that we did the right thing. In fact, we are following biblical and rabbinical role models who understood human sensitivities and paramount value of peace.
When God Lied to Abraham
The paradigmatic biblical example of this kind of sensitivity happens between Abraham and Sarah. God tells the 92-year-old Sarah that she and her husband Abraham will give birth to a child.
The shocked Sarah laughs. She asks God how a man as old as her husband Abraham could ever become a father.
God then relates this episode to Abraham. God, however, does not tell the whole truth. He leaves out the part of the story where Sarah laughs. In interpreting this passage, the Jewish sages derived a principle: “We are permitted to alter a story for the sake of peace.”
Does that mean we can lie whenever we want? Absolutely not. It does mean we need to evaluate our actions within a larger matrix of values.
In Judaism, peace is the paramount value. I refer to peace not only in the sense of conflict between countries and groups. I also mean peace in human relationships.
When it comes to these relationships, preserving mutual respect and peace takes precedence over absolute honesty.
Now this precedence is not true in all circumstances. If we tell a lie involving something illegal or sexually immoral, honesty takes precedence. Yet, peace is an ideal that stands near the apex of the Jewish values pyramid.
The Bible tells us to “seek peace and pursue it.” (Psalms 34:14) The Jewish biblical interpreters pointed out that this verse contains two verbs. We have to seek peace. And we also have to pursue it. In other words, peace is the North Star guiding our choices, words and deeds.
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