It All Depends ...

We’ve all heard the joke: How do you know when a lawyer is lying? When his lips are moving. Sadly, that joke is not reserved for the legal profession. Whether it’s in the public arena, such as fake politicians and fake news, or counterfeit goods, sham charities, shell corporations, etc., blatant fabrication seems to be the new norm.

What is the truth anyway?

I saw a promotion for a continuing legal education seminar titled “Lawyers and Lies,” which looks at the difference between what we are supposed to learn in kindergarten, such as honesty being an unquestioned virtue, and how the law sees it. Apparently, lawyers are held to something called the standard of “Required Honesty,” which is how the Professional Rules of Conduct play out depending on the relationship between the attorney-speaker and the subject. Anyone who takes the webinar is guaranteed to learn how cultural values shape what we call a “lie” and explore negotiation ethics as to the difference between bargaining and lying. Some less than scrupulous lawyers may even find new ways to justify shaping the truth, while others may feel they have been naïve and have been more compliant and honest than was required.

Having graduated from law school 30 years ago, I signed up for the seminar, curious to learn the official boundaries between outright lying and effective lawyering. What would the Torah have to say about that?

Behind Closed Tents

Ki Tavo is known as the Torah portion of “blessings and curses,” and it describes a curious ceremony, like a mass verbal referendum, which would take place when the Jewish nation enters the Land of Israel. The people will encounter two mountains: Mount Ebal, which is barren and bleak, and Mount Gerizim, a lush and verdant slope. Half of the tribes will ascend one mountain and half the other, while the priests and the Holy Ark remain in the middle.

The priests will turn towards each mountain and utter 12 proclamations that bring either blessings or curses upon the Jewish people, to which they will reply “Amen.” If the Jewish people comply and act properly, G‑d will bless them with economic prosperity and safety. But if the Jewish people violate these prohibitions, then they will be cursed with economic disaster, family disharmony and foreign conquest. Full-out transparency and disclosure—and we ratified it.

So what are these 12 specific behaviors that would teeter us between blessings and curses? Are they simply the Ten Commandments, plus two? Oddly, on their face, they have nothing to do with what we think would be the central tenets and behaviors that would be paramount to driving national destiny. Rather, the prohibitions are for things like setting up secret idols, abusing one’s elders, secretly moving property lines, committing incest and variations thereof, being a hitman and killing innocent people, issuing unjust verdicts against the oppressed, taking advantage of the disabled, etc.

What all these behaviors have in common is that they’re done in secret. Further, it tends to be someone in a position of power or control who is violating the foundations of relationships, civic duties or social norms. Finally, the victim has no recourse or protection.

How many prominent figures have gone down after being exposed for privately committing the very behaviors they publicly protest? How many people craftily put forth a clean and honest image while every night they sweep their dirt under the proverbial carpet? And how many victims of abuse fear retaliation—or not being believed—even more than the violence they experienced?

In the Torah world, there is no such thing as “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas”—that whatever goes on behind closed doors or the privacy of one’s home is OK. The Jewish people were about to stake their claim in the homeland and become a functioning society. The directive of Ki Tavo was to root out that which corrupts and destroys an organism from within: the cancer of hypocrisy, which can only live in the shadowy world of secrecy. A spiritually sick nation cannot fulfill its mission of serving G‑d, and as His emissary, be a light unto the nations. Consequently, to violate these precepts is to write their own ticket of destruction and exile.

You’re Not Smarter Than G‑d

The ceremony on the mountains is a reaffirmation of the covenant between the Jewish people, G‑d and His commandments. The hallmark of a covenantal society is that it is holistic; we are all in this together, we are responsible for each other, and the actions of individuals affect society at large.

In contrast, as the promotional materials promised, as long as your behavior falls within the parameters of “Required Honesty,” you can legally fool others. You can even fool yourself. But you’re really deluded if you think you can fool G‑d.

The Cost of Deception

In the end, I was too embarrassed for my profession to take the seminar. I didn’t want to reward the continuing education committee for its bad taste, and I didn’t want to see fellow lawyers using their minds in this way (although there are plenty of respectable and honest attorneys out there). Says the prophet Isaiah: “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter.”

Even if we can get away with it (and even if someone is not aware that he or she has been cheated or harmed in some way), these violations are far from harmless. On the contrary, Ki Tavo warns us that the cost of the deceptions that betray our values, deceives others and surreptitiously unravels the very fabric of society is not a price that any of us should be willing to pay.

Source: Commentary of Rabbi Avraham ibn Ezra on Deuteronomy 27:14.