Friday, April 4, 2008

Rami on the Third Commandment

OK, let's move on. Here is the Third Commandment as translated by the Jewish Publication Society: You shall not swear falsely by the name of the HaShem your God; for HaShem will not clear one who swears falsely by His name. (Exodus 20:7)

My initial response to the Third Commandment hasn’t changed since the third grade: “You mean I can lie as long as I don’t use God’s Name? Cool.” While I didn’t and don’t believe that is what Torah is saying, I am nonetheless intrigued as to why the Torah doesn’t prohibit lying altogether.

Following Huston Smith, I would suggest that Torah is not laying out a complete ethical system in the Ten Commandments, but rather prohibiting those actions that would promote the devolution of civilization as a whole. As such the commandments beginning with number three are related to the Seven Laws of Noah to which I will return a bit later in our conversation.

Of course it would be best if we didn’t lie to one another, but this is highly impractical. I lie all the time both to protect myself and others, and because it is often easier to say a half-truth ("I'm fine") than to involve someone else in my angst and drama. Actually I am lying right now: Even if I tell myself I am lying to protect others, I am most likely lying to protect myself from having to deal with the suffering of others. I lie because telling the truth is too often easier, requires less attention, and gets you off my back so I can get on with what I want to do. While some of the lies I tell are benign (or so I insist), others, if discovered would cause great pain to myself and others. But none of my lies promote the collapse of social cohesion.

Yet if I were to swear falsely in a court of law, and cover my lie by claiming under oath that it was the truth, the whole truth, so help me God, then my lie subverts justice, and in so doing threatens to bring down civilization as a whole.

I have more to say about this, but let me pause and invite you to get a word in edgewise.

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