Q. Would Jewish ethics applaud George Washington who is said to have been unable to tell a lie?
A. I knew an Australian synagogue where they taught their pupils to sing (in English) a song that went, “Be the matter what it may, always tell the truth…” It sounds just like George Washington – but actually the problem is much more complicated. What are we to do if telling the whole truth would cause or condone controversy or conflict? In the language of Jewish ethics, how are we to resolve a clash between truth and peace, or truth and justice? Is the truth greater than peace (or justice), or are they greater than truth?
Great though truth is, the sages say, “God alters the truth for the sake of peace” (BM 87a). Biblical examples are found in Gen. 18:12-13; Gen. 50:15-17; I Sam. 16:1-2, etc. A practical illustration is the situation of the dying patient. Do we tell him the unvarnished truth about his prognosis if this would take away the last shreds of his peace of mind? The problem arose with Ben-Hadad king of Aram. Elisha told a messenger to inform the king, “You will live” even though God had revealed to the prophet that the king would die. There is a solid study of the question in an essay by Gary Joseph Lavit, “Truth-Telling to Patients with Terminal Diagnosis”, in The Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society, vol. 15 (1988).
In many areas of human relations the same problem arises. The Talmud relates that there were difficulties between Rava and his wife, and their son Chiyya filtered the truth so as not to make relations between his parents worse (Yev. 63a). Lavit says that in such cases of conflict between truth and peace, it is not that the rule of truthfulness is cancelled but it is temporarily pushed aside. This is a good statement of the case. Truth is indeed supremely important but in an emergency it can be superseded by a competing ethical principle.
However, there is no justification for twisting the truth for the purpose of commercial advantage. Thus an advertiser has no right to varnish the truth in order to sell more products and make more money.