The Internet is abuzz with Brian Williams’ disclosure last week of false statements about being on an aircraft that was fired upon in Iraq in 2003. This revelation has brought speculation about the Nightly News host’s time in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, as well as other stories he’s reported. Within a few days of the story breaking, Williams voluntarily stepped down for temporary leave from the anchor desk, saying he’s “presently too much a part of the news due to my actions,” and, by Tuesday, had been suspended from NBC without pay for six months.
Where does that leave us? And what does Judaism say about lying and how to regard the liar?
It would be incorrect to assume that Jewish law considers any detour from the truth sinful behavior. Like so much in Judaism, there is a gray area between the absolute poles of right and wrong. For example, lying is permissible when a life is at stake. Lies, under certain conditions, are permitted when told in order to protect another’s privacy or prevent the humiliation of another person.
Deceiving others for personal gain, defrauding in one’s business interactions, and exaggerating one’s virtues in order to be elevated in the eyes of others, however, are forbidden.
As with any situation, the truth lies with the individuals directly involved. Brian Williams, in his televised apology, somberly shared his regret for misrepresenting the actions that took place 12 years prior repeatedly, and as recently as the previous week. In an interview with Stars and Stripes, however, he minimized responsibility by saying that his recollection of the events is different from the military personnel who were with him because they are “professionals.” What has become clear, however, is that there are a series of discrepancies in what Williams first reported about the incident in 2003 and what he has said on several occasions since then.
Jewish tradition in particular frowns upon a transgression against a group of people. “It is worse to steal from the many than to steal from an individual, for one who steals from an individual can appease him by returning the theft; one who steal from the many, however, cannot,” as we learn in collection of teachings on the Talmudic tractate Bava Kamma known as Tosefta Bava Kamma. In a memo circulated to NBC employees, NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke wrote, “By his actions, Brian has jeopardized the trust millions of Americans place in NBC News.” But he didn’t say Williams’s breach was insurmountable. “He deserves a second chance, and we are rooting for him. Brian has shared his deep remorse with me, and is committed to winning back everyone’s trust.”
We’ve seen celebrities lie before. And in many cases, public figures seem to be able to rise above their sins and return for a second act. The difference here is that the individual in question is someone in whom we have put our trust; a trust that was broken when he admitted to lying and severed further when he offered an anemic explanation and apology.
Each year, our High Holy Day liturgy stresses the possibility of teshuva, or repentance. What is repentance if not the opportunity for a second chance?
Teshuva requires a serious commitment. In his seminal work, Shaarei Teshuvah, Rabbeinu Yona outlines a 20-step process that requires an individual to acknowledge the wrongdoing and then accept responsibility for his actions. Expressing remorse is considered the first step. Though Williams has “shared his deep remorse” with his boss, he has yet to convey remorse to the majority of those whom his lies have impacted. Until he truly apologizes to the millions of people whose trust he shattered, he hasn’t fulfilled the requirements of the initial step and would be unable to move forward with the process. The remaining 19 steps would require him, as it has many others before him, to reflect on his actions, scrutinize his need for self-aggrandizement, and come to understand why his actions were wrong. Without arriving at this place, free of justification, what is there to prevent a person from committing the same offense?
Maimonides observed that repentance is not complete until the individual is confronted by a situation identical to the one in which he had previously sinned—and it is within his power to commit the sin again—but refrains from doing so, not because he is afraid but because he truly wishes to change. Perhaps it will take such an opportunity for Brian Williams to prove to the American public that he is worthy again of our trust.
Rabbi Rebecca Einstein Schorr is a CLAL Rabbis Without Borders fellow. She is a contributing writer at Kveller.com, and writes about the intersection between the sacred and not-yet-sacred at her blog, This Messy Life.