The ninth commandment is often misunderstood to be principally about perjury. But this fails to capture the broad essence of God's directive.
At its core, the ninth commandment is about curbing the damaging potential of the tongue. In prohibiting us from bearing false witness against our fellow, the Bible precludes us from the evils of defamation, slander, libel and harmful gossip.
A man or woman can be stripped of every possession save one: their good name, their most prized possession of all. It is not the hands that can do the most harm but the tongue.
We Jews have discovered the suffering that can be inflicted by false witness. Going back 2,000 years to the allegation that we killed the Son of God to the accusation that we mixed the blood of Christian children into our Passover matzos, to the charge that we poisoned the wells of Europe and brought on the bubonic plague, to the modern denunciation by Hitler and Goebbels that the Jews were parasites and disease carriers who deserved extermination, we have learned that the tongue is much more dangerous than the hands.
Less destructive but still alarming is the power of the modern media to destroy a man’s name and reputation with allegations that even if responded to still leave a mark. Our legal system, with its presumption of innocence, is no match for the far more public trial by media in which TV pundits establish a man’s culpability well before he ever faces a jury.
Why is bearing true witness one of the 10 most hallowed principles in global morality? Because man, at his core, is not an innocent bystander or a passive onlooker. God did not place us on this earth to gaze silently at the celestial majesty and not transmit on our sense of wonder. To the contrary, we are placed on this earth to tell the tale and proclaim God’s mastery of the earth and his moral requirements for justice.
I write this short thought during the festival of Passover, with its central commandment that the Jews retell the story of the exodus from Egypt to their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. Bearing witness is the pivotal requirement of the holiday because the story instills within every successive generation a feeling of gratitude toward the divine and a desire to connect with him and obey his will.
But what if one were to lie about what they had witnessed, or deny it ever occurred? They would be breaking an everlasting chain of generational testimonial linking us with God and would thus be severing the link. That, in a nutshell, captures how serious the sin of perjury is.
In 1976, the state of Israel pulled off the greatest military commando raid in modern history with its rescue of imprisoned hostages in Entebbe, Uganda. Even secular soldiers returned with a sense of awe and wonder that a great miracle had taken place and Israel had sustained only one casualty (the commander of the operation, Yoni Netanyahu, brother of the prime minister). But a few years later, with the miraculous dimension beginning to fade, I heard the same soldiers taking personal credit and saying, “We trained hard for that mission.” Bearing incomplete testimony can lead the Israeli people to feel less grateful and connected to God.
Conversely, Holocaust denial is the most terrible example of the violation of the ninth commandment. After the unspeakable horrors of the mass murder of 6 million European Jews, rather than bear witness to their victimhood some would say that not only did they not suffer, they never even existed. Both their lives and their deaths were manufactured.
April 7 of this year saw the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, and I had the great honor of being asked by the president of Rwanda, Paul Kagame, to speak at the national commemoration in Kigali. When we met afterward, I told him, “Mr. President, just as so many haters bear false witness against the Jews today by denying the Holocaust, no doubt the same haters of your people will one day deny the genocide of 1 million Tutsi over three months and simply say that there was a civil war.”
He looked at me painfully and said, “Twenty years? It is already happening today.”
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, America’s Rabbi, will next month publish his highly anticipated book “Kosher Lust.” The video of the debate will shortly be published on www.shmuley.com and on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.