Posts Tagged ‘What is truth’

It seems like every day we are seeing tweets, FaceBook posts, and news reports about fake news. Every time we read or hear any of this it raises the question, what is true?  What is false?  American politics seems to be the center of fake news, so let me share a great example from American politics.

How many of you know about the XYZ affair?

In 1797, at the beginning of the John Adams administration, relations with France, our ally during the Revolutionary War, became quite tense.  The French Revolution had changed France’s nature, with executions quite prominent, and many Americans, particularly in the Federalist party, no longer trusted the French at all.  President Washington, before retiring from office, even acknowledged that the former ally from our Revolution was in total chaos, and could not be trusted. Washington declared the United States should stay neutral in any conflict between France and Great Britain. The Democratic Republican party members, however, saw the French Revolution as a continuation of the ideals from our revolution, despite evidence that the fall of the French monarchy resulted in the madness of murders and oppression of many French citizens, eventually leading to a dictatorship – Napoleon.

President Adams was a Federalist, and his Vice President, Thomas Jefferson, was a Democratic Republican. Great Britain was at war with France.  Jefferson, wanted the US to side with the French.  Adams, abiding by Washington’s policy, wanted to stay neutral. Jefferson met secretly with a French representative in Philadelphia, undermining Adam’s plans.  Then, Adams sent a three person delegation to France to negotiate with the French foreign minister, Talleyrand.  Talleyrand refused to see them, instead having them meet with 3 minor officials.  He insisted that the United States give a large loan to France (in reality at extortion) as well as America paying for the damage French naval ships had done to American merchant ships.  This became known as the XYZ Affair.  Thomas Jefferson believed, and put forward the idea, this affair was a hoax created by the Federalist party, despite factual confirmation of the despicable ways the French were operating.  What made Jefferson’s actions even more reprehensible, was that he and President Adams, had been friends coordinating on numerous previous items for America, including the Continental Congress passing the Declaration of Independence.

A key figure in pushing American neutrality, during the Washington and Adams administrations was Alexander Hamilton, Washington’s treasury secretary.  Hamilton was a realist, recognizing the disaster unfolding in France. Further, he knew that for our newly established country to reach a level of economic strength, we needed a trade agreement with Great Britain.  Jefferson hated Hamilton so much he secretly supported an extremely partisan newspaper, the Aurora, that condemned Hamilton as a monarchist, someone wanting to reestablish American submission to the British monarchy.  Anyone knowing Hamilton’s history recognizes the falsehood of this claim.  Yet Jefferson and his political allies constantly claimed Hamilton and the Federalists were monarchists.  Further, they claimed Hamilton’s financial policies were meant to create his own personal wealth.  The truth is Hamilton was being sensible by knowing America was not ready to participate in a war.  His economic policies formed the basis of American capitalism that would bring our country amazing strength.  Jefferson lacked moral consciousness, shown by his embracing of falsehood.  As our 3rdpresident, he utilized executive powers in the same way he condemned Washington and Adams.

You can see that whatever exists today has deep roots in American history.  Our tendency to ignore truth and to embrace falsehood that supports our ideology seems as strong now as in 1797.  To put this in language we hear a lot today, they were living in their isolated bubbles without caring about the boundaries of others.  I am sure you have heard lots of discussion, for example, how your FaceBook page is filled with links, stories, and postings that feed your political, religious, and personal perspectives.  And I would also guess that most of us have been guilty of posting comments that feed our egos and feelings without caring about the feelings of others.

What is at the core of this problem?  Well, there is never one answer.  The moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt would say that we are driven mostly by our instinct and not by our intellect.  He came to that conclusion while analyzing why most people are stuck in their ideological political bubbles, despite what certain information might prove.  I agree with Dr. Haidt but I will add a couple of other aspects, both of which are appropriate for us to reflect upon as part of our process of repentance and atonement during the High Holidays.

If we were to make a real attempt to be morally conscious, we would be sensitive to the impact the words we write or speak will have on others.  I am not saying we should just hold hands and sing “Kumbaya” together. There will always be disagreement. We just too often fail to handle that disagreement in a moral manner.  However, I believe there is a second question we need to ask about what pours out of our mouths – what actually is falsehood and what actually is truth?

Jewish tradition has strong statements on falsehood and truth.

Exodus 23:7 states, “Keep far from a false matter.”  The first dozen verses of chapter 23 are focused on certain themes.  First, nothing should undermine justice, that is, no one should do any action to skew a court case to favor either the wealthy or the poor.  It should be based on fact.  Second, there is a definite attempt to create peace and acceptance of others.  We are told to aid our enemy if their animal has gone astray or has fallen under a burden.  We are told to not oppress the stranger, as we were strangers in Egypt. Perhaps most significantly, is the stress on avoiding falsehood and its impact on justice for all, especially the poor – their needs should not be undermined by the desires of the wealthy.

The Talmud (Shavuot 30b – 31a) puts the statement “Keep far from a false matter” more explicitly in the context of how a judge in a court should operate.  The judge cannot accept bribes.  He cannot advocate for his own statements.  He cannot sit on a court with another judge he knows to be a criminal.  He cannot provide an advantage for a wealthy person over a poor person.  He cannot arrange for a second person to be a witness but not speak, having him there only for the appearance there are the required 2 witnesses.  He cannot even have a student who is an ignoramus sitting before him to observe the court as the mere presence of an ignoramus might cause the judge to err.  In short, the judge must do everything possible to distance himself from falsehood.

Now let’s look at truth. It says in the midrash, Deuteronomy Rabbah, “What is God’s seal?  Truth (emet).  And why emet?  It consists of three letters, alef, the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, mem, the middle letter, andtavthe final letter, confirming what it says in Isaiah 44:9, ‘I am the first, and I am the last and beside me there is no God.’”  The Talmud then shares this story about speaking truth:

Rava said, I once thought there was no one person who speaks only the truth. One of the rabbis said to me that even if they would give him all the riches in the world, he would not tell a lie, and told this story.  Once he visited a town called Kushta; whose inhabitants would not tell a lie.  And none of the people there died before his or her time.  He married a woman from there and had 2 sons with her.  One day, his wife was washing her hair.  A neighbor came and knocked on the door.  Thinking it would not be proper to tell the neighbor his wife was washing her hair, he said, “she is not here.”  Subsequently his 2 sons died.  The people of the town came and asked him, “What is the reason for this?” He told them what happened and they said to him, “We beg you, leave our town, and do not incite death against us.” (Sanhedrin 97a)

I am sure you are sensing the same questions as me this story raises.  Truth might indeed be God’s seal, but does that mean we must always tell the truth?  Are there situations in which we can or even should state something false, a lie? Have we, in reality, misunderstood what the concepts of truth and falsehood truly are?  The Talmud wrestles with these questions.

In Baba Metzia Rav Yehuda says there are 3 times one can deviate from the truth.  You can say you did not study a text even if you did. This promotes the value of humility. You can say you did not sleep in a bed, even if you did – as there might be some unseemly residue found in the bed, and you can lie to avoid shame.  Third – you can say you were not treated well by a host in order to prevent others from taking advantage of that person’s hospitality.  In summary, you can lie in order to be humble, to avoid shame, and to protect someone else’s situation.

In Ketubot we get a different approach.  In a debate between the conflicting schools of Shammai and Hillel, the question is how or if you should praise a bride who is  ugly. The school of Shammai says to stick to the truth and only praise the specific good qualities of the bride. The school of Hillel says you should call any bride fair and attractive.  The school of Shammai asks, should you praise her beauty even if she is ugly?  To which the school of Hillel replies that if you limit what you praise about the bride, it implies that the rest of her can be denigrated.  Hillel is not saying to praise anyone truthfully or falsely every time, but know there are certain occasions on which you must only issue praise in a full manner.

Perhaps the strongest argument in the Talmud justifying a lie (Kevamot) states that it is a mitzvah to not be truthful in a situation that will bring peace.  This teaching is based on a lie recorded in the Torah spoken by God. Here it is from Genesis 18, “Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in years.  Sarah had stopped having the periods of women.  And Sarah laughed to herself saying ‘Now that I am withered, am I to have enjoyment with my husband so old?’  Then God said to Abraham, ‘Why did Sarah laugh, saying, shall I in truth bear a child, old as I am?”  There are numerous Jewish texts that draw on this passage from Torah to teach that a falsehood which keeps peace in a household is acceptable, even necessary.

Now comes a key question. How do we reconcile 2 connected teachings with a third that seems in contradiction?  Exodus 23:7 commands us to distance ourselves from falsehood. Truth is the value that should drive and connect everything – it is God’s seal.  Yet God’s lie is used to exemplify how there are times we should use falsehood to push forward other values: humility, avoiding shame, preserving respect for others, and advancing peace.

Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler, an Orthodox rabbi, philosopher and theologian from the early 20thcentury, gives a key insight.  From Michtav mi Eliyahu, a book of his letters compiled by his students we get this thought.  “We had better define truth as that which is conducive to good and which conforms to the will of the Creator; and falsehood as that which furthers the scheme of evil in the world.”

Truth, in other words, is not simply what is factually correct.  Truth is an element that pushes forward goodness in our world; that helps us bring divine presence to our world.  This conforms to the midrash that proclaims truth to be the seal of God. We should not and cannot dismiss factual correctness.  We must always be aware of facts, and then put that awareness in a context that will forward goodness in the world.  Falsehood is more than pushing forward lies.  It is misusing knowledge to advance immorality.  If we tie this back to Exodus 23, it is misusing knowledge to advance the immorality we are commanded NOT to tolerate: the undermining of justice, especially for the poor, the undermining of peace, the abuse of the stranger.

We struggle with this because we tend to cling to idealized, inflexible definitions of morality and truth. Too many of us condemn those who perceive new knowledge changing how we should deal with morality as “moral relativists.”  Years ago I read an article in Newsweek written by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams.  Williams stated we are not moral relativists.  We are simply always discussing what is our idealized truth – meaning the highest ideals that will push forward morality and God’s presence. The more knowledge we gain, the more our idealized truth changes.

Archbishop Williams also made an interesting observation about the relationship between our moral system and science.  We accept a system of science that is always being challenged, ergo always changing as our knowledge increases.  We also accept the need for having moral standards, but change in knowledge forces us to reconsider the parameters of the moral ideal.  The ending of slavery, the increased rights of women, and the acceptance of LGBTQ relationships are just 3 examples of how increasing our knowledge changed our moral idealism.  Those who do not accept those changes then call those of us who do, “moral relativists.”

Truth, then, is also accepting the reality of change in our understanding of how to best follow the moral commandments from the Torah.  As we mature, as we learn, our understanding grows and changes.  Truth is our commitment to improving and expanding our understanding of morality.  Denial of the reality that we are constantly learning new facts, thus adjusting our understanding of morality, is falsehood.  We must have faith that truthfulness exists, and that justice and peace are the highest goals we can pursue.  For God has always represented justice, as well as the high hope for humanity to use truth to reach up and embrace it.  As it says in Psalm 85, “Faithfulness and truth met, justice and peace kiss. Truth springs up from the earth, justice looks down from the heavens.”

Our attempt to constantly understand truth and falsehood, that is to understand what really advances morality at the highest level, is our human method to reach up and try to connect with God.  It is not only about fact and fiction.  It is about our attempts to reach the highest ideals.  As we begin our High Holidays, our time of teshuvahand atonement, let us look into our hearts and souls with the highest goal in mind, a deepening connection to each other that will lead to a deepening connection to the Divine.  May we strive for an embracing of truth.

Shanah Tova metukah

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