I. Excuses and Ethics
Gotta Go allows you to program excuses in advance. With the press of a button, you can active time-delayed texts and/or phone calls that will interrupt your conversation and enable you to leave immediately. You can claim any type of emergency, whether saving someone else’s life, picking up a waiting relative or helping a friend with a computer problem.
However, before using this app, we need to consider its ethical component. This is an app to help you lie. Purists will claim that any lie is wrong and that this app is inherently unethical. I’m not sure that is correct.
II. Lying for Peace
The Sages of the Talmud (Avos 1:18) state that there are three pillars in the world: truth, peace and justice. In support of the first pillar, the Torah commands: “Stay far away from falsehood” (Ex. 23:7). However, at times, God seems to deviate from complete truthfulness. Sarah said that she considers her giving birth unlikely because her husband Avraham was old. When God told that to Avraham, He changed it to Sarah being skeptical because of her advanced age (Gen. 18:12-13). The Talmud (Yevamos 65b) explains that you are allowed to lie for the sake of peace, in this case to prevent Avraham from getting angry at his wife Sarah. Similarly, Beis Hillel would famously praise all brides as beautiful, even if they weren’t (Kesubos 17a). R. Ilai says that it is permitted to lie (literally: alter) for the sake of peace while R. Nosson says that it is a mitzvah (Yevamos, ibid.).
III. Peace and Truth
Rav Daniel Feldman (The Right and the Good, expanded edition, p. 75ff.) offers two possible explanations of the permission to lie for the sake of peace. According to one approach, peace is more important than truth: “in order to uphold peace, truth at times must be jettisoned” (ibid., p. 75). In such a situation, the lie is the lesser of the two evils. Or, perhaps, only damaging lies are forbidden but lies that preserve harmony are allowed.
With this, he explains the disagreement between R. Ilai and R. Nosson whether lying for the sake of peace is merely permitted or obligatory. If the prohibition of lying is in effect in the context of peace then lying must be optional. You are not required to violate this prohibition for the sake of peace, just allowed to do so. But if there is no prohibition in saying a lie that promotes harmony, then of course you must follow that path.
Rav Yaakov Ariel (Be-Ohalah Shel Torah, vol. 1 79:4) follows this second approach. He addresses the question whether a social worker is obligated to testify in a divorce hearing that a woman confessed to committing adultery. Violating that confidentiality would compromise the ability of social workers in general to function. He suggests that the requirement for truth has limits, with specific exceptions. Primary among them is peace. He suggests that facilitating social workers is also an exception but leaves that unresolved and instead pursues another line of reasoning in answering this specific question.
IV. Truth and Politeness
Hurting someone’s feelings constitutes a lack of peace. Just like Beis Shammai could praise an ugly bride as beautiful to avoid hurting her feelings, we may do likewise in similar situations. Rav Yitzchak Fuchs (Halikhos Bein Adam Le-Chaveiro 20:19-47) provides a number of examples. If someone offers you cake that looks burned or otherwise unappetizing, you may say that you are not hungry. In order to avoid embarrassment, a woman who miscarries and then gives birth to a boy, when asked by friends when thepidyon ha-ben celebration for the first-born son, can lie and say that she is the daughter of a kohen or Levi who does not make the celebration.
More to our point, if a visitor appears at your office or home and you do not have time to speak with him, Rav Fuchs (20:26) quotes Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach as permitting you to say that you are not there. You may do this to avoid offending the visitor by saying that you do not have time. Some people will respect that you are busy and others will not. Some will respect your busy schedule but take a long time in telling you how much they understand your lack of time. While it is best to be honest or to deflect with ambiguous responses, when you have no other choice, you may lie to avoid offending the visitor because peace takes priority. This seems to conflict with Rav Aaron Levine’s conclusion that lying for the sake of peace “is permissible only if the objective is to end discord or prevent an actual rift… [not] merely to mollify or prevent the occurrence of a ruffled feeling” (Moral Issues of the Marketplace in Jewish Law, p. 18, quoting Meiri, Yevamos 63a and Rav Yosef Epstein, Mitzvas Ha-Shalom, p. 547). Rav Fuchs and Rav Levine seem to disagree on the nature of the offense that permits a lie. According to Rav Fuchs, you can lie to avoid hurting someone’s feelings. According to Rav Levine, you may do so only to avoid an argument.1
However, three caveats must be mentioned. First, you may not lie for the sake of peace in front of children (ibid.). This would be setting a terrible example for people who cannot yet understand the complexities of social interaction. Second, you may not habitually lie, even in a permissible way. Both of these are learned from the verse: “They have taught their tongues to speak lies” (Jer. 9:4). We should not teach children to lie and we may not teach ourselves to become liars.
Finally, we should avoid lies whenever possible. Lying for the sake of peace is a last resort. It is better to minimize the lie, if not avoid it altogether.
V. The Excuse App
Therefore, when it comes to the Gotta Go app that allows you to lie for the sake of peace, you may only use it in appropriate circumstances. If the app is the best way to avoid offending someone or getting into a fight (depending on the disagreement between Rav Fuchs and Rav Levine), then you may use it. For example, if someone pressures you into a meeting for which you have limited time, and you are concerned about insulting him, you may set the app to interrupt the meeting.
However, you should only use appropriate excuses. You do not want to wish harm on anyone, unduly worry your interlocutor or malign anyone falsely. You do not want to say, “I have to leave because my mother-in-law was in an accident” because that would constitute wishing harm on your mother-in-law and may cause the other person to worry about your mother-in-law. You also do not want to say, “I have to go because my father-in-law was caught selling meth amphetamine” because that would malign your father-in-law. It seems to me that the best way to use the app is to receive a text and say, “I’m sorry but I have to go,” or receive a phone call and say, “I’m sorry but I need to take this.”
Additionally, you should only use the app occasionally. If you rely on it too much, you will use it as a first resort and not a last resort. You also risk becoming a habitual liar.
This article originally appeared on Rabbi Gil Student’s blog.
- Although in Case Studies in Jewish Business Ethics, p. 19, Rav Levine seems to agree with Rav Fuchs.