There are no white lies
Some years ago, I picked up an English biography of one of the towering Torah figures of previous generations. The biography began with him being brought by his father as a young boy to be tested by a great rav. The author described the anteroom of the rav in question. A worried looking woman was sitting there holding a shechted chicken. She went into the rav and emerged with a relieved look on her face.
At that point, I put down the book never to pick it up again.
Recently I was asked by a certain publication whether I had any objection to the publication of an "embellished" version of a story that appeared in my biography of Rabbi Moshe Sherer. I replied that I most certainly did. Nevertheless, the "embellished" story was somehow published. When I overcame my surprise, I glanced quickly at the "embellished" version, noted that a few of the basic facts were simply wrong and that there were a number of details that the author could not possibly have known. Again, I put the story down without reading to the end. Only later did I learn that I had only skimmed the surface of the fanciful details.
In the first case described above, it was obvious that the author could not possibly have had any historical document from three hundred years ago upon which to rely. His intention was seemingly harmless enough – an effort to add a bit of descriptive color – but the cost was too high. When I realized that he was not a believer in the sanctity of facts and evidence, I could not trust anything written, especially in a book without any footnotes or references to sources. As for the "embellished" story, it succeeded only in ensuring that I will never read anything that author writes, especially when billed as non-fiction.
The Gemara in several places enumerates circumstances when it is permissible to dissemble. But lies, even white ones, are rarely harmless. Something precious is lost every time a lie comes to light (and most eventually do): the trust that is the fundamental glue of all social relationships, from the most personal to those conducted at arm's length. Just as a marriage without trust cannot survive, so too is the health of a society destroyed where bribery and deceit are rampant, where there can be no assumption of honesty between buyers and sellers or between leaders and citizens. Rabbi Elchonon Wasserman, Hy"d, famously attributed the Great Depression to a breakdown in trust.
In recognition of the far-reaching consequences of deliberate deception, the Gemara (Kesubos 19a) entertains the possibility that one should give up one's life rather than knowingly sign a false contract. Traditionally, breaking tenaim prior to a wedding was treated more seriously in halacha than divorce, for the former involves going back on one's verbal commitment (vort) to do something.
THE RIPPLE EFFECT of lies extends far and wide. Every child knows the beautiful story of how Rav Elyashiv's mother merited to give birth to the future gadol hador because she did tell even her husband that a woman who shared their Meah Shearim courtyard had ripped down and soiled all the laundry she had laboriously hung from the clotheslines. Only one problem: Rav Elyashiv was born in Lithuania. The story may be true, but not about him. Every such example lessens our ability to inspire future generations with the stories of great figures.
Most of us love stories of Hashgacha Pratis (Divine Providence). But the power of such stories depends entirely on their veracity: Any fool can make up a story filled with remarkable coincidences. If our emunah is strengthened by a story of Hashgacha Pratis, and we subsequently discover that it falls into the category of fables written by fools, we feel violated and robbed of something precious. We will never again be able to listen to any story of Hashgacha Pratis, without some niggling doubt about whether it is true. And that is a tragedy because true stories of the Ribbono shel Olam's Hashgacha abound.
Our community depends for its functioning on the ability of gedolim to convey their opinions in the clearest possible fashion. When we read something bearing the signature of gedolim, we must be certain that it truly reflects their views. If an activist securing multiple signatures falsely represents to one gadol the names of others who have allegedly signed or otherwise conceals crucial information, his sin is twofold. He has distorted the decision-making process of the gadol whose signature he seeks. But even worse, every subsequent edict now falls under a cloud, and it is possible for those who do not wish to comply to question whether it truly reflects the views of the signatories or has been manufactured by askanim (communal activists).
Let's say that a wealthy man is invited to a parlor meeting to benefit a young kollel student, who has a child requiring immense medical expenses. The organizers of the parlor meeting produce a video from one of the most respected figures of the generation in which he promises his blessing to anyone who contributes to help the family to whom he is related. Not long after the parlor meeting, the wealthy man in question is approached by the supposed beneficiary himself for a donation. The former expresses his shock as he contributed very generously at the parlor meeting, and the latter expresses his no less great surprise because none of the proceeds reached him.
Who can blame that donor if the next time he receives a similar solicitation he hesitates to give out of a fear that he is only lining the pockets of unscrupulous fundraisers? Even a few such cases make it vastly more difficult to collect for the overwhelming majority of eminently worthy causes run with very low overhead. To prevent a tragic decline in donations, a handful of unscrupulous collectors can make it necessary to establish complex communal mechanisms to verify the legitimacy of the cause and the transparency of the fundraising process.
These few examples of the effects of a breakdown in trust are sufficient to explain why Rav Aharon Leib Steinman could respond with one word to a father from abroad who asked what should be the focus of his education of his children: emes (truth).