The Bible Says What? ‘Abraham and Isaac were right to tell lies’
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The Bible Says What? ‘Abraham and Isaac were right to tell lies’

Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner delves into the Torah and picks out a controversial point, before offering a progressive response

Is she your wife or your sister? Three times in the chapter of Genesis, our patriarchs lie about the identity of their spouses.

While staying as the guest of a foreign king, Abraham twice tries to pass Sarah off as his sister, not his wife. Later, Isaac does the same with Rebecca. How can this untruth be justified?

The defence given in each instance is that the men feared they would be murdered by people who were jealous of their wives.

This seems like a reasonable justification – we are commanded to place the preservation of life above all other mitzvot, even telling the truth.

Famously, Rabbis Hillel and Shammai disagreed over whether it was right to tell an unattractive bride she was beautiful on her wedding day.

The Talmudic commentaries on the ethics of lying concluded that sometimes it was even acceptable to lie to prevent someone’s feelings from being hurt.

In this parshah, the ethics of lying are more complicated than merely justifying Abraham’s actions on the basis of the preservation of life. In trying to protect himself, Abraham put Sarah at risk of unwanted sexual advances from other men.

He also puts his host, the King Abimelech, at risk of damnation from God, because the King was unaware that to touch Sarah was a sin.

As a consequence, all the women of the Abimelech household are briefly rendered infertile by God.

In extreme situations we may make the decision to lie to save our life or the life of someone else – but this is never without consequences.

Even if a moral decision involves choosing between the lesser of two evils, we must always acknowledge that even a lesser evil may have serious repercussions.

Laura Janner-Klausner is Senior Rabbi for the Movement for Reform Judaism

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