Genesis 25:19 -28:9 - Deception
by Rabbi Jeremy Rosen
The Torah is very clear about deception. “Do not deceive or lie to each other”( Leviticus 19.11).
Can deception ever be justified? Are there such things as ‘white lies?
This week the Torah itself gives us some examples of the complexity of the issue. Esau is described as a hunter in contrast to Jacob who is a straight, uncomplicated character. A hunter is in some ways a metaphor for deceit. You hide, disguise yourself and then go in for the kill. And the rabbis of the Midrash, perhaps unfairly, have Esau deceiving his father by pretending to be religious when he was not by pretending to show an interest in his spiritual life while privately ignoring him.
But then Jacob also deceives his father much more openly. It is true that he protests when his mother asks him to dress up and pretend to be his brother in order to get the blessing from his father. His mother reassures him and probably explained that she was doing what has been foretold in God’s name. But Jacob deceives by disguising and then actually lies. “I am Esau your firstborn.” Does this mean that the Torah approves of deception? Or that the end justifies the means since clearly, Jacob was the better candidate to lead the family into the future. Less impulsive than Esau who lives for the moment and doesn’t seem to care about the birthright?
The Rabbis of the Midrash seem to recognize that what Jacob did, despite being a crucial patriarch and co-founder of our tradition, was wrong nevertheless. They explain that Jacob had to pay the penalty. Jacob would himself be deceived by his father-in-law Laban when it came to marrying Leah instead of Rachel and over his compensation. Do as you would be done by. If you cheat, others will cheat you. The amazing thing about the Torah is that it recognizes human frailty. No one is perfect.
Nevertheless, the Torah implies that Rebecca was right. Isaac himself was misled. Jacob had the qualities of leadership. Esau was not a suitable heir.
But there’s another kind of deceit here. Rebecca wants to send Jacob away because she has heard Esau saying he wants to kill Jacob. But she does not tell this to her husband because she knows he would not hear anything against Esau. Instead, she says she wants to send him away to find a wife. Is it right to be slightly dishonest to do the right thing? As indeed Eliezer Abraham’s servant did when he went to find a wife for Isaac and told Rebecca’s family that Abraham had told him to go specifically to his family for a bride for Isaac when in fact he had only said to go back to his land and his birthplace, not his family?
No, the Torah does not approve of lying or deception. But the rabbis did make an exception in the interests of peace and humanity. The classic of an acceptable lie is when you tell a bride how beautiful she is even if she looks like the back of a bus.
The Torah, as always, tells us that life is complicated. It is neither black nor white. It paints large moral canvases and deals with broad issues, but every situation and every case is different, and we need to treat each case by trying to reconcile a practical end with a moral imperative.
Jeremy Rosen was born in Manchester, England, the eldest son of Rabbi Kopul Rosen and Bella Rosen. Rosen's thinking was strongly influenced by his father, who rejected fundamentalist and obscurantist approaches in favour of being open to the best the secular world has to offer while remaining committed to religious life. He was first educated at Carmel College, the school his father had founded based on this philosophical orientation. At his father's direction, Rosen also studied at Be'er Yaakov Yeshiva in Israel (1957–1958 and 1960). He then went on to Merkaz Harav Kook (1961), and Mir Yeshiva (1965–1968) in Jerusalem, where he received semicha from Rabbi Chaim Leib Shmuelevitz in addition to Rabbi Dovid Povarsky of Ponevezh and Rabbi Moshe Shmuel Shapiro of Yeshivat Be'er Ya'akov. In between Rosen attended Cambridge University (1962–1965), graduating with a degree in Moral Sciences.