Avraham Burg

But Is It Really About Lies?

By David Hazony

  • Print
  • Share Share
David Hazony


Genesis 25:19–28:9

Do you remember when Ross Perot, in a debate against Al Gore back in the early 1990s, got flustered by something Gore said, maybe about NAFTA or Perot’s computer company, and at a certain point he started yelling out, “Now you’re lying!” “He’s lying!” Nobody could tell who was right at that moment. But everybody knew that Perot had lost the debate. The accusation, it turned out, revealed more than did the deception itself.

Avraham Burg, of course, is no Ross Perot. Yet we ought to be exceptionally careful when we focus too intently on the falsehoods that biblical characters allow themselves. Our reaction may say more about us than them.

To understand what’s troubling in Burg’s approach, we should start by taking note of the one “liar” that he oddly neglects to mention: God. God, after all, deceives twice. He famously twists Sarah’s words when asking Abraham why she laughed at the prospect of having a baby at her age (she had actually laughed about Abraham’s age, not hers). And he later deceives Abraham into thinking that he would have to kill his own son in the Binding of Isaac. In both cases, God’s example points to a problem in Burg’s reasoning: If deception equals corruption, then God too is corrupt, and we have a lot more to worry about than Jacob’s character.

The trouble is, neither of God’s lies are really “dishonest” in the way we usually think of the term. One was meant to protect Sarah’s dignity in Abraham’s eyes, the other to test Abraham’s commitment. Yet the same can be said for many of the “lies” Burg tallies. Rebecca and Jacob deceive Isaac into getting the blessing meant for Esau — but only after God had sworn to Rebecca that the “older [Esau] would serve the younger [Jacob].” Yes, Simeon and Levi deceive everyone before killing off Shechem — but that’s in retaliation for the rape and kidnapping of their sister Dina, which Burg neglects to mention. Their evil, such as it was, was in their vengefulness and violence, much more than their deception.

And clearly, what Burg points to as the “family’s greatest lie of all” is anything but. Jacob’s sons committed a great and stupid evil in brutally selling their brother Joseph to slavery. Yet even if we condemn their decision to hide it from Jacob, we can also understand their motivation. They truly wanted to protect their father from the horrible deed. Again, the cover-up pales in light of the crime.

The rabbis taught us that in rare cases you are allowed to lie — such as if a groom asks you on his wedding day what you think of his bride. And the Ten Commandments are oddly lacking the line “Thou Shalt Not Lie.” Instead we are told to “Distance yourself from the lying word,” and to be honest in your business dealings. Lying is a very bad habit; but not every deception is inherently evil, nor is every truthful statement worth saying. To lump them together, ignoring the subtleties of the actual motivations or results, branding the whole patriarchal world a “culture of lies and deceit”—is to reveal our own bugaboos more than to understand a difficult text we call our own.

David Hazony is a contributing editor at The Forward. His first book, The Ten Commandments: How Our Most Ancient Moral Text Can Renew Modern Life (Scribner, 2010), was a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award.

Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: torah tent, jacob, david hazony, avraham burg

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • "My dear Penelope, when you accuse Israel of committing 'genocide,' do you actually know what you are talking about?"
  • What's for #Shabbat dinner? Try Molly Yeh's coconut quinoa with dates and nuts. Recipe here:
  • Can animals suffer from PTSD?
  • Is anti-Zionism the new anti-Semitism?
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels. http://jd.fo/g4cjH
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.