Doug Taylor and Rabbi Morton Moskowitz

I almost shouted it, but the organic Muzak of waves and seagulls at the beach effectively swallowed my volume. I was skipping rocks with my friend, the King of Rational Thought. He tossed the stones, expertly making them dance like miniature ice skaters on the calm water. I tossed the stones, expertly demonstrating why major league baseball would never knock at my door. We had been talking about the importance of truth when he startled me with what appeared to be a totally out-of-character statement.
"I said," he replied patiently, "that sometimes a lie may be better than the truth."
I stared at him, stunned. I chose to hang around this man as often as possible because of his unique insight into the nature of things. Everything he taught me always made sense. But this?
"It bothers you, doesn't it?" he asked.
It sometimes bugs me when he seems to be able to read my mind. But today it didn't matter. I was too blown away.
"After all the discussions we've had about living in accordance with reality and truth, now you tell me it's better to lie?" I said, exasperated.
"Careful," he said gently. "You're exaggerating my statement. I said that sometimes a lie may be better than the truth. Look, I'll give you an example. Suppose someone came and cut you up with a knife. How would you feel about it? Good or bad?" He flipped a gray stone across the Sound, somehow making it leap and jump like a marionette.
"Definitely bad," I replied. "In fact, I'd be pretty mad."
"Okay," he said. "But what if that someone was a surgeon and he was saving your life?"
That caught me off guard. Unsure how to reply, I stooped to pick up a rock instead.
"You see," he went on, "cutting flesh is a harm. You bleed, you risk infection, then you have to heal. But sometimes you submit to it to get a greater benefit. Now lying is a harm. But what's the harm?" he asked.
"Well, it's trying to remake reality to suit your own desires," I said, as another of my cannonballs unceremoniously nose-dived into the water.
"You're right," he said. "For example, a child may lie to avoid going to the doctor because it's unpleasant. The child is relating to reality like an authority; like he can change it. But he doesn't see the big picture; the larger good. Plus, the more he lies, the more he's not dealing with reality. He's moving toward a fantasy world and away from truth. No one in their right mind would want to do that.
"But," he said, turning to face me, "what if the only way to save a life is to lie? Imagine you're in Nazi Germany during the Second World War. Say you're hiding Jews and the SS comes knocking at your door. Are you going to lie or tell the truth?"
I have found few things in life more disconcerting than to think you've got it all figured out, only to have someone blow the lid off your beliefs.
"Uh, I- uh, well-, I'd- uh-" I closed my mouth and tried to engage my brain. "I guess I don't know what I'd do," I finally blurted out.
"Trust me," he smiled. "You'd lie. You'd lie because you'd opt for the greater benefit; in this case, saving innocent people's lives. The only reason to lie is if the overall good is better than the harm done by the lie. But you have to carefully, and rationally, evaluate each situation. That requires training. I can almost guarantee your emotions will try to convince you to lie at times when it would be convenient for you, but not appropriate. And remember, if you evaluate wrong, it's like having surgery when you don't need it."
"Well, speaking of training," I said, recovering, "could you let me in on the secret of how you make those rocks skip so magnificently?".
"I can offer a hint," he replied with a straight face.
"What's that?"
"You might try using flat rocks."