In My Own Words: The art of lying

By: RABBI RACHEL ESSERMAN, EXECUTIVE EDITOR

If he’d only said, “Yes, I drank heavy as a high school and college student, but I learned [fill in the blank here with something that says he no longer drinks to excess].” It almost doesn’t matter how Brett Kavanaugh, the new justice on the U.S. Supreme Court, would explain why he no longer acts like he did as a teenager. He still would have been able to deny the complaints of sexual assault and harassment, which are harder for someone to prove, and admit to behavior that has been documented.
Perhaps Kavanaugh thought that, like his prep school classmates, his college friends would lie for him. It turns out they were more than happy to talk about his heavy drinking and its results – including not remembering what happened the night before. All he had to do, though, was not lie about that, but to do so seems more and more common in public life. That is, admitting “I was wrong, I did bad” – and then basically saying, “Now, I’m going on with my life like it didn’t happen.”
I’m not writing this to debate whether or not Kavanaugh should have been confirmed. (I didn’t support him for reasons that have to do with his judicial rulings, not his private life.) What concerns me is that politicians and others don’t seem to realize that it makes no sense to lie when you’re in the public eye and someone is recording your every word.
Let’s be honest: All of us have lied. Some of us tell white lies. Some of us tell major whoppers. We tell a lie to get ourselves out of trouble, or so we don’t hurt someone’s feelings, or to make life run a little smoother. Sometime the lie benefits one person, sometimes it benefits a larger group. The ancient rabbis even discussed if one is permitted to tell a lie. For example, Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai debated whether one should tell a bride she is beautiful, even if she is not. Beit Shammai says one should describe her accurately. Beit Hillel says one should call all brides beautiful, even if they are not. Telling the strict truth is less important than the bride’s feelings.
However, in general, the rabbis dislike lying, particularly when one is under oath. In fact, they discouraged people from taking an oath. To lie under oath means you are breaking one of the Ten Commandments: taking God’s name in vain.
In the political world, sometimes a lie creates more problems than the truth would. To make our democracy work, the press, the FBI and others need to fact-check what politicians say. When someone lies about one thing, it makes people take a closer look at what other things that person might also be lying about. Coming clean about one type of behavior might create some problems in the short run, but help in the long run.
As for lying about what someone did as a teenager: I don’t believe that people need to expose their entire personal lives in order to run for office or be appointed to a position of power. I think it’s possible for people to change and so, if when questioned about their past, they admit to what they did and show how they have moved on, then I have no problem with them serving the public. However, when you lie about your behavior – and add to that lie by saying that other people are the ones telling lies – then you prove you aren’t mature enough to serve in public life.