All Questions Answered by Rabbi Amy Scheinerman (Emerita)
Question: From a Jewish perspective, what level of personal honesty is required for a job interview and application? For example, if they ask you “have you ever taken drugs?" and I tried them once in college, do I have to admit to this?
Forthright honesty is appropriate for a job interview and application.Jewish tradition does not forbid lying in all cases, but the situation you describe is not one in which lying would be approved by tradition.
Aristotle, in the Ethics, wrote that it is never permissible to lie. Plato, in the Republic, wrote that occasional lies serve a higher purpose (though we would have cause to question his examples: physicians and politicians). Jewish tradition is neither so strict as Aristotle, nor as lenient as Plato.
Torah recounts numerous examples of deceptions and outright lies: the serpent in the Garden of Eden; Abraham claims Sarah as his sister; Rebecca and Jacob deceive Isaac; Laban substitutes Leah for Rachel on her wedding night; Jacob’s sons tell their father of Joseph’s “death” and deceive the men of Shechem; Joseph deceives his brothers in Egypt. We would do well to consider the consequences of these falsehoods.
On the other hand, Shifrah and Puah lie to Pharaoh and are rewarded by God for saving innocent lives (Exodus, chapter 1). No less than God instructs Samuel to lie to Saul to save his own life (I Samuel, chapter 16).
While truthfulness is highly prized in Jewish tradition, it is not an absolute value. Certainly in the case of pikuach nefesh (saving a life) we are required to lie because, as the Sages remind us, when Torah says “live by [the mitzvot]” it means “live by them, and do not die because of them” (Yoma 85b). Hillel and Shammai disagree (Ketubot 16b-17a): Shammai favors the pure, unvarnished truth, but Hillel condones and even lauds white lies that save people’s feelings.
George Orwell wrote, “At a time of universe deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” It is sadly all too common these days to find people lying on resumes and in job interviews. There is nothing in our tradition that would permit this: it is not a matter of pikuah nefesh, nor would a lie on an application or in an interview save anyone’s feelings. It would merely be a self-serving falsehood and a poor way to begin a relationship we hope will be long-term and meaningful.
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