Wednesday, November 30, 2011

No Easy Answers: Seeking a Path of Integrity

In 19th century Baghdad, a group of students turned to their teacher with a question, seeking guidance on one of the most elusive human dilemmas: when is it justified to lie?
Question: We know that deceiving is a grievous act, so much so that deceivers are said to “not see the face of the shekhina” (divine presence).
Yet we also know that at times it is justified to deceive, as the Rabbis taught that “it is permissible to fib in the interest of peace”…
Now there are many occasions when a person could find justification to lie and to justify it as being in the interest of peace… Therefore we ask our teacher to instruct us in other situations in which it is justified to lie, so that we shall recognize the right path to take, and may your reward be multiplied by the heavens.
Responsa Torah Lishma #364, Iraq 19th Century.
מצינו בענין השקר שהוא חמור מאוד והוא מארבע כיתות וכו' ומצינו שנעשה בו היתר לפעמים שאמרו רז"ל מותר לשנות מפני דרכי השלום... והנה יזדמן כמה עניינים שהאדם יוכל לעשות להם היתר לשנות בהם ולתלות ההיתר משום דרכי השלום ... על כן יגיד לנו מורנו אופנים אחרים שיש בהם היתר לשנות כדי שנדע את הדרך אשר נלך בו ושכמ"ה.
(שו"ת תורה לשמה סימן שסד)
Striving to lead a life of truth, one confronts this question constantly, in various iterations: Should I tell this “white lie” in the interest of peace? Was it right to avoid the truth that time? Do I forsake peace and order for the sake of speaking truth to power? Should I stick by the rules or can I play dirty for the sake of a greater cause?
Writ large, this dilemma touches upon the question of civil disobedience (Occupy anywhere), of how much governments should tell their people (Wikileaks), of legal deals settled in back rooms in the interest of “moving forward” (Judge Rakoff vs. the SEC-Citibank settlement), or nations preventing full democratic rights from the people in the interest of peace (hello, Egypt).
Yaakov and Lavan, the heroes of this week’s parsha, VaYetze, are the paradigms of this dilemma. Lavan goes down in Jewish memory as the paradigm of the deceitful, untrustworthy “other.” He tricks Yaakov by giving him Leah and swindles him from the profits of shepherding.
But our Yaakov himself is the paradigm of uncomfortable Jewish stereotypes: the runaway-victim-cum-sneaky-businessman, the master of deceit whose tricks get played right back at him. Yaakov literally means “Heel/Sneak,” and the end of this week’s parsha sees him sneaking off with Lavan’s daughters and flocks back to Canaan.
Back to our Iraqi students and their dilemma: They are hoping for clear guidelines: when is it justified to lie, and when is it not. In between the lines of their question, you can hear that more than a fear of the consequences of lying, they are afraid of themselves, of the power of their sharp minds to justify any situation under the rubric of: “it is OK to fib in the interest of peace”.
The teacher on the other side of the question was the leader of the Iraqi Jewish community, and perhaps the greatest sage of Arabian Jewry in the 19th century, Rabbi Yosef Chayim, aka the “Ben Ish Chai”(son of a living man). Unfortunately, he offers no easy solutions:
Answer: To produce before you my own understanding of the exact iterations where it is justified to lie – that I will not do!
Rather I will quote the stories where this dilemma is brought up in the Talmud, and you will learn directly from them.
And so I shall begin:
המצאות של אופנים שיש בהם היתר לא אעשה לכם מדעתי בדבר זה ורק אביא לכם אופנים הנזכרים בתלמוד ואתם תלמדו מהם וזה החלי בעזר האל צורי וגואלי.
The Ben Ish Chai then quotes 45 (!) scenarios of lying and deceit from Rabbinic texts (read them all – in Aramaic - here). He concludes by saying:
I have now set before you a table full of the various iterations about lying and deceit mentioned in Rabbinical texts that are justified. And you must be punctilious in learning these scenarios yourself, and logically deduce one thing from another. Only keep the fear of God on your face: do not create leniencies for yourself beyond the bounds through remote analogies. And this is sufficient guidance – may it bring peace.
הרי סדרתי לכם שלחן מלא כמה אופנים בענין השקר וגניבת דעת הנזכרים בדברי רז"ל להיתרא ואתם תדקדקו בכל דבר ודבר ותלמדו דבר מתוך דבר אך תשימו יראת ה' על פניכם לבלתי תעשו קולות חוץ מן השורה בדמיון דחוק... ודי בזה,  והיה זה שלום. ואל שדי ה' צבאות יעזור לי. כ"ד הקטן יחזקאל כחלי נר"ו.
The Ben Ish Chai, R. Yosef Hayim
What I find fascinating about this obscure responsa is the way the Ben Ish Chai refuses to delineate exact guidelines for navigating this dilemma. The Ben Ish Chai is “setting the table” for his students, not spoon feeding them. In a Halakhic tradition that is often quick to seek higher authorities to tell people exactly how to behave, the Ben Ish Chai offers an empowering cry for autonomy: study the stories yourself, and reach your own conclusion (it is fascinating that this is a choice Jewish law makes often in the realm of the ethical, and rarely in the realm of ritual…). He avoids giving strict moral guidance, and instead offers a moral education, hinting that each person must go through their own journey of studying and encountering the detailed dilemmas of differentiating right and wrong, truth and lie, for themselves.

Next week, Yaakov will turn into Yisrael. The conniving anklegrabber will find the courage to become a face-to-face confronter, as he struggles with an angel and is granted a new name:
“Not as Yaakov/Heel-Sneak shall your name be henceforth uttered, but rather Yisrael/God-Fighter, for you have fought with God and men and have prevailed.”    (Genesis 32:29)
וַיֹּאמֶר: לֹא יַעֲקֹב יֵאָמֵר עוֹד שִׁמְךָ, כִּי אִם-יִשְׂרָאֵל: כִּי-שָׂרִיתָ עִם-אֱלֹהִים וְעִם-אֲנָשִׁים, וַתּוּכָל.בראשית לב:כט
Perhaps Yaakov needed to go through his own biographical education into the depths of deceit in order to establish his own commitment to truth. For the Ben Ish Chai it is the stories of the Talmud that help him design a life of truth amid the occasional need to deceive. As we try and walk the “straight and narrow” ourselves, we must make use of the resources that our biographies and cultures give us, being “punctilious in learning these scenarios ourselves” as well as sharing the stories that were helpful to us, with those who walk alongside us. There will be moments when we might find ourselves still being Yaakov’s, let’s hope it will only be a step on the way to being Yisrael.

Shabbat Shalom,

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