Not Everything that is Not a Lie is Truth
Rabbi Melanie Aron
Friday, June 15, 2012
In the weeks leading up to the June 5th election, we here in California were bombarded by advertising. In particular the proposed increase in the tobacco tax was the target of a very active opposition campaign. For 47 million dollars, buys a lot of radio and tv spots.
While it was hard to identify actual falsehoods, there was a lot in these ads, as in many other forms of advertising, that wasn’t exactly true. Information was provided that was misleading, or not to the point, while other relevant information was skipped over. In particular the advertisement with La Donna Porter, a physician from San Joachin, was widely criticized for conveying the impression that the medical community opposed Prop 29.
However misleading, the ads seem to have been effective. Prop 29 moved from overwhelming support, to being unable to muster the necessary votes to avoid defeat.
In talking about this week’s Torah portion, the story of the twelve spies sent out by Moses to scout out the land, many summaries describe the report of the ten spies as false. But if you look very carefully at what they said, you will notice that there were no outright lies. Instead they used nuance, carefully chosen words, and what was left unsaid, to shift the mood of the people.
The ten spies began with what seemed like reportage: “We came to the land you sent us to and it does indeed flow with milk and honey, and this is its fruit”. Then they quickly moved into the realm of evaluation and opinion: “We cannot attack this people for it is stronger than we.” Finally, they used scare tactics:”The country that we traversed and scouted is one that devours its settlers.” Just like the tv and radio ads, this opinion laden report was very convincing, and moved the people into open rebellion against Moses and Aaron.
The Kotzer Rebbe a careful reader of the Biblical text, does not accuse the ten spies of falsehood. Rather he comments: “Not everything that is not a lie, is truth.”
Jewish tradition warns us against this type of falsehood in many places.
In the Bible’s holiness code we are admonished: “Do not lie or deceive one another.” The double nature of this commandment was understood to include outright lies and lies of omission.
The importance of these teachings can be deduced from their prominent position in our liturgy. Each time we recite the Amidah, we are to conclude with the instruction: “netzor lishonchah mayrah Keep your tongue from evil, and your lips from speaking guile” (Psalms 34:14). Guile is considered broader than lies, and includes various types of untruths.
The Torah also warns “Keep your distance from anything false” (Exodus 23:7). This phrase “keep your distance” is unusual. It is used nowhere else but here and comes to emphasize how important it is that we flee from even a measure of falsehood.
Joseph Teleushkin has a whole chapter on half truths in his book Jewish Wisdom. He notes:
“According to Jewish ethics, it is wrong to praise what is good in the product you are selling, while remaining silent about its defects. Just as you would feel cheated if someone deceived you in this manner, so you must not mislead another.”
He tells the story of a stock broker who sold his own mother shares in a certain company. Soon after the price fell and stayed low for a long time. The broker had given her several reasons why he thought the company would do well. What he did not tell Teleushkin’s mother was that the firm at which the broker worked had a large quantity of this stock to unload. The broker didn’t say anything untrue, but he did withhold information from the buyer. By Jewish law, the hiding of relevant information is forbidden. As the famous Musar teacher Moshe Chayim Luzzato reminds us in his book Mesillar Yesharim: “to cover or hide a defect is nothing less than a form of deceit and is forbidden”. This is expressed well in the Yiddish proverb, “A half-truth is a whole lie.”
Without high standards of honesty, trust cannot be established. As the Babylonian Talmud teaches, “ A liar’s punishment is that even when he tells the truth, he is not believed.” That is certainly one challenge in our current political climate, where discourse is discounted by the assumption that anyone will say anything in order to win. Removing half truths from the political arena would go some distance towards restoring a more positive political climate. Advertising is likely to play a larger and larger role in upcoming elections. Being able to evaluate the trustworthiness of that advertising is going to be key.