Progressively Speaking: Is it ever acceptable to deceive someone?

Progressively Speaking: Is it ever acceptable to deceive someone?

Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild gives a progressive Jewish view on a topical issue

Sacha Baron Cohen pictured in 'Who Is America?'
Sacha Baron Cohen pictured in 'Who Is America?'

With Sacha Baron-Cohen having disguised himself to make his new TV show, we should ask: is deceiving people ever acceptable?

Torah relates many stories of deceit by our founding families – Abraham and Sarah pretending to be siblings, Jacob deceiving Isaac for the birthright, Jacob’s sons deceiving him over Joseph and Joseph deceiving his visiting brothers in Egypt.

One might gather that deception is acceptable, but Parashat Kedoshim corrects us: “You shall not steal, nor deal falsely, nor lie to one another…nor curse the deaf, nor put a stumbling-block before the blind”.

Jewish law develops two concepts to answer this question –  geneivat da’at –the theft of mind, knowledge or understanding; and  bein Adam le-chavero – how we behave towards each other.

Geneivat da’at includes deception, creating a false impression and preventing a fair evaluation of the situation.

Exceptions to the prohibition are where the intent is to honour someone, should someone feel dishonoured (finding they were not invited when the [non]inviter knew they could not come), or if the person deceives themselves.

The category “bein Adam le-chavero” is underpinned by the ethical imperatives of justice and kindness. In our dealings with each other, were we guided by these two requirements, perhaps small deceptions could be carried out under the rubric of kindness.

In one’s personal capacity, it is hard to find support for the acceptability of any deception, and then only for the sake of kindness and the feelings of the other.

Returning to the stories of our ancestors, we can see a pattern of deceit for a purpose – to save a life, ensure the correct transmission of covenant, protect a vulnerable sibling, check out a position.

These are task oriented rather than concerned with personal desires – any humiliation is incidental. In other cases, such as David and Batsheva, their deception led to serious rebuke.

Torah never condones deception for personal gain, and later law positively opposes it.

Today deception is easily practised: the internet facilitates it, fake news is spread for multiple purposes, and we are too often tolerant of unkind or unjust activities if they confirm our biases or seem harmless entertainment.

Our tradition warns that geneivat da’at is particularly cruel for it humiliates another, and must be used only if the task is of sufficient importance.

We must judge each deception against this measure and remember the imperatives of justice and kindness.

Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild has been a community rabbi in south London for 30 years

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