The recent testimony by Attorney General Jeff Sessions before a Senate committee raises an interesting ethical question. Apparently, either Mr. Sessions has a really lousy memory or he just did not wish to tell the truth about certain recent events.
Eleven times during his testimony, he claimed that he could not remember. The most mystifying of his disclaimers was his inability to remember his third meeting with the Russian ambassador, despite the fact that the two were photographed together at the Mayflower Hotel.
Obviously, the Attorney General knew how to avoid perjuring himself. I must add that this is a clever, though not especially admirable Washington trick played by politicians on both sides of the aisle.
Looking at this matter from the perspective of halachah (Jewish law), the question is whether artful dodging constitutes a transgression.
I should point out that truth telling is not an absolute in Judaism. Certainly, the Torah states clearly: Lo t’shakru – Don’t lie (Leviticus 19). Still, there are occasions where lying may be justified. For example, if it is a matter of protecting another person’s life.
But there are other justifiable reasons for not always telling the truth, such as to avoid embarrassing or humiliating another person. Essentially, lying seems to be permissible in situations where one is concerned about the well-being of another person.
But is failure to tell the truth a form of lying? I would have to say yes, it is.
Jewish law deals both with sins both of commission and omission. Both are transgressions. In fact, during the High Holy Days, when we come to the Al Cheyt Prayer, “For the sins I have committed against You,” several of those listed are sins of omission. Perhaps the most profound of these is “For the sin of silence.”
Every Jew should understand how the seriousness of this transgression from the horrifying memories of the Shoah (Holocaust) where world-wide silence was deafening and fatal to millions.
Failing to tell the truth does not constitute perjury unless the witness actually does remember when he has claimed not to. But that is impossible to prove. However, according to the halacha, this does constitute lying.
Convenient forgetfulness fails the larger test of ethical conduct, at least according to the principles of our faith, not punishable but wrong nevertheless.
One final observation: A vow or oath is much more than a promise. When a witness stands, raises his/her hand and promises “to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, (and formerly also …”so help me God,”) this is a vow, i.e. the most solemn promise. Judaism has a long history of discouraging the making of vows because they may be very difficult to keep. Better we should not make vows at all rather than committing an offense against God.
Interestingly, there is considerable agreement about this in Christianity. The Quakers were the first Americans to object to the witness oath, citing a prohibition in James 5:12 against any form of swearing.
“But above all things, my brethren, swear not, neither by heaven, neither by the earth, neither by any other oath.”
The most significant prayer of Yom Kippur is the Kol Nidre. Its essence is a plea to God to be forgiven for vows that were made but were not kept. It seems that the concept of the vow/oath has been depreciated to the equivalent of a mere promise which, like pie crusts, are meant to be broken. Rather sad, wouldn’t you say?
The old adage is that a person is only as good as his/her word. The Pirke Avot reflects this very ideal where we read: “Rabbi Shimon said, there are three crowns: the crown of Torah, the crown of priesthood, and the crown of kingship. And the crown of a good name is superior to them all.”