Shammai Engelmayer
Shammai Engelmayer

The lies have it

Politicians lie — here, and everywhere else in the world. Lying is part of a politician’s armory.

Only, as just the past few weeks demonstrate, that lying has gotten out of hand.

The real problem, though, and especially for those of us for whom Jewish law is sacrosanct, is that we encourage the lying by our votes, by our financial support, and by passing on those lies to others.

Some recent examples from around the globe:

  • Two factors in the victory for the Leave side of Britain’s so-called Brexit vote were immigration and making funds paid to the EU available for health care, especially for the elderly.

Pro-Leave campaigners warned voters Britain was at “a breaking point” when it came to immigration. A Conservative Member of Parliament who supported the Leave effort, Daniel Hannan, who happens to be Jewish so he should have known better, hammered away at the issue. “Outside the EU,” he assured voters, “we can control our immigration policy.”

He did not mean it, and he admitted that he had lied just two days after the votes were cast. “Frankly,” he said, if Britons “think that they have voted and there is now going to be zero immigration from the EU, they are going to be disappointed.”

Regarding health care, Nigel Farage, leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party, repeated the falsehood as often as anyone would listen that Britain was spending 350 million pounds a week on the EU. (The amount is about half that.) If Britain left the EU, he told audiences (especially elderly ones), that 350 million pounds a week would be redirected to the National Health Service. The official Leave campaign adopted that preposterous pledge for its posters and campaign literature.

Just two days after the vote, Farage admitted that it was a preposterous pledge.

  • In Brussels on June 23, Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, appeared before the European Parliament and made two extraordinary statements during his speech.

The first statement was bad enough. Israel is responsible for world terrorism. The “way to have the terror you face come to an end, you must bring an end to the Israeli occupation,” and create a Palestinian state in its wake, Abbas said.

The second should have caused parliamentarians to walk out in disgust. Instead, they gave Abbas a standing ovation when he finished.

“Just a week ago, a week, a group of rabbis in Israel announced, in a clear announcement, demanding their government, to poison — to poison — the water of the Palestinians…,” he said. “Is this not clear incitement to the mass murder of the Palestinian people?”

Two days later, in a press release, Abbas said it was not true.

  • Lies fall easily off the lips of Donald Trump, presumptive Republican nominee for president, and have done so since the start of the primary season. One Republican opponent after another accused him of lying, and usually proved it, but voters still went for Trump. Recently, he leveled a long diatribe against Hillary Clinton, his presumptive opponent. CNN, The Associated Press,, and many others took that speech apart line by line; they found that the overwhelming majority of his claims were untrue, and others had only a modicum of truth in them.

In a speech a few days earlier, this one to evangelical Christians, he warned against godless Hillary, saying we “don’t know anything about Hillary in terms of religion.”

Religion News Service has reported on Clinton’s faith several times this year alone, noting that she “was, is and likely always will be, a social-justice-focused Methodist,” and this “has been evident across her decades as a lawyer, first lady, senator and secretary of state….”

Time Magazine in 2014 ran an article headlined, “Hillary Clinton: Anchored by Faith.”

  • Clinton, of course, has her own list of lies, although not as many as her opponents claim. Still, a lie is a lie (such as ducking under fire in Bosnia in 1994, which reportedly had Secret Service agents “laughing their faces off because they knew that was a flat-out lie,” according to one former agent).
  • Clinton’s newfound “attack dog” in the race is Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, a possible vice presidential choice. On the stump with Clinton this week, Warren unashamedly distorted Trump’s positions on a number of issues (which is hard to do, considering that it is often hard to know what Trump’s positions are).

Politicians on both sides of the aisle lie routinely. The real problem is that we seem not to care that they do.

The Torah warns against putting “a stumbling block before the blind” (see Leviticus 19.14), which, as readers know by now, includes politicians telling untruths in order to mislead voters.

The Torah and Oral Law, however, in their various warnings against lashon hara (“bad speech”), say the one who lies is not the only one who sins.

According to the Babylonian Talmud, tractate Pesachim 118a, “Whoever relates slander, and whoever accepts slander, and whoever gives false testimony against his neighbor deserve to be thrown to the dogs….’”

Halachically, then, it is as forbidden to encourage verbal wrongs as it is to practice them.

In the case of political rhetoric, such encouragement can include voting for a candidate who lies with impunity, and even passing along the lies to others in order to influence them to accept the lies.

Not to vote for a candidate who lies is a tall order, and not one that is easily filled.

There is another standard we could use in evaluating candidates, though. It is found in its original form in Isaiah, Chapter 58. Only vote for those candidates who help you fulfill your responsibility “to loose the chains of wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke…; to share your bread with the hungry…[and cover] the naked….”

We may not be able to avoid violating halachah when we vote, but at least the choices we will make will be better informed and soundly based.

Forget about taking back our country. It is time for us to take back our politics.

About the Author
Shammai Engelmayer is rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel of the Palisades. He hosts adult Jewish education classes twice each week on Zoom, and his weekly “Keep the Faith” podcast may be heard on Apple Podcasts, iHeart Radio, and Stitcher, among other sites. Information on his classes and podcast is available at
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