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Truth in the Age of Falsehood

Rosh Hashanah Morning Sermon 5780 Beit Simcha, Tucson, AZ

My friends, today I want to address a problem that has been troubling for a while.

It’s the question of what constitutes truth. The issue is an important one, perhaps never more so than during a period when so much public discourse in this world seems focused on contrary views of basic facts. I cannot recall a time when the most fundamental aspects of public life, the common agreement on what is and isn’t real, have been more subject to intense disagreement. In America we can’t seem to agree any more on what seem like obvious facts: what constitutes corruption, whether it’s OK to suggest foreign powers investigate political rivals, what constitutes a citizen, how many people are present in a crowd, what the word “no” means, whether the world is getting hotter or not, where someone was born, or if our own intelligence agencies are telling the truth about our enemies.

There are always legitimate differences of opinion in a free society about events and policies, and these are naturally subject to interpretation. That is what vibrant, open debate is about in a democracy. But what we have increasingly seen in recent years is the deliberate dissemination of falsehoods and the intentional propagation of misinformation. The ensuing controversies are not about the right way to do things but about what is actually going on in the first place. And that weird ambiguity, the strange and disturbing sense that what used to be facts are now considered opinions, that what clearly appears to be happening is not generally accepted as real, is doing great damage.

I’m not saying America was an infinitely better place when we all believed everything Walter Cronkite said on the CBS evening news, and I’m certainly not saying that challenging accepted pieties is a bad thing. But I am saying that something deeply weird has taken place over the past couple of decades that calls into question so many simple facts that we are now very often unable to tell truth from lie. As Shakespeare has Falstaff exclaim in King Henry IV Part 1, “Is not the truth the truth?”

Lest you think that this is all the result of some deliberate effort on one political side, I must tell you that much of this began with an academic assault on the verities of accepted scholarship. It was a philosophical approach, from the left, that stated that truth was all relative: you believe about the world what you believe, while I believe what I believe, and who’s to say who’s right or what’s actually true? The critique held that truth is relative, and one’s approach to facts is culturally determined and subject to systemic bias.

In this way of thinking, not only is beauty in the eye of the beholder but so is truth. There are many truths in the world and they can conflict freely, because truth is actually just a matter of perspective, or opinion. Relativism is often associated with postmodernism and philosophers such as Michel Foucault and Richard Rorty. It is a quite contemporary school of thought that calls into question the very nature of truth. I have heard people argue many times—on the left side of the political spectrum—“Well, that may be your truth; but I have my own truth, and there is no such thing as objective truth.”

That approach—that facts are just a matter of opinion—was, in the past, the province of conmen, shysters and quacks, snake-oil salesman and hucksters. Later it became the stock-in-trade of professional political liars like Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propagandist who invented and popularized the use of the Big Lie. In more recent years it moved into the realm of postmodern philosophers and soft-thinking people with less malign intentions, but damaging applications nonetheless.

And, of course, there were certain nations and cultures that always specialized in obfuscating, denying and revising the truth.

When I was younger, each year before the High Holy Days my father used to take my brother and me to the garment district in Los Angeles to buy new clothes for yontiff. The garment district in LA was, in those days, a Jewish industry, and the particular store my father favored was staffed by a Jewish immigrant from what was then the Soviet Union. One year, after I started college, I didn’t go with my dad and brother on our annual pilgrimage to purchase new Rosh HaShanah clothes for. The salesmen noticed. Where, he asked my father, was the other son, die alter zun? My dad answered, “He’s in university now, and he has exams and he has to study.”

The Russian man asked, “So what’s he studying?”

Now, to a Jew who grew up in the Soviet Union, “What’s he studying?” meant, “What’s he going to do for a living?”

My father answered, “He’s studying history.”

The Russian Jewish salesman frowned and shook his head.

“History? In this country, in America, no good. No work. But in Soviet Union, studying history? Very good. Lots of work. Every few years, change history!”

And that was essentially true. Whenever Joseph Stalin changed his mind about someone or something, or the regime changed, or a new alliance was arranged or dissolved, the entire historical narrative was revised. It was called revisionist history. And then, of course, when the Berlin Wall came down and the Iron Curtain regimes collapsed an entirely new history had to be crafted. History, and facts, were always subject to authoritarian re-interpretation, and truth was a matter of policy, not reality. Last year’s film, “The Death of Stalin” highlighted that period of history in darkly comic way.

This approach has now been adopted wholesale by the leaders of entire nations, including those who pretend to represent conservative values based on eternal verities and unshakeable truths. And because of this it has become nearly impossible to find agreement in society on the most basic facts. Truth has indeed ceased to be truth.

I am not just talking about politicians. You know the old joke: “How can you tell when a politician is lying? His lips are moving.” But back in the days when that joke was funny, we were talking about the promises politicians made and never kept: “Read my lips, no new taxes.” Or, “I will keep our boys out of the war.” Or even, “I did not have relations with that woman.” Statements that weren’t worth the paper they weren’t written on.

Today it’s not the promises we can’t trust; it’s everything. It’s virtually every single statement made by some leaders. It’s the cascade of shameless lies that pour out of some very powerful people, from Vladimir Putin to Racep Tayep Erdogan to Viktor Orban to, well, you know who these people are, don’t you? And it’s the entire way our fragmented media reports these patent falsehoods.

We do, and should, value freedom of speech. We just shouldn’t value the freedom to deny facts and wildly invent lies.

There are times when stretching the truth is done for inoffensive purposes, such as entertainment. Larry Adler was once the world’s greatest-ever harmonica player, the son of Ukrainian Jewish immigrants to Baltimore. Adler was the friend of Charlie Chaplin and of Prince Philip of England, the lover of Ingrid Bergman, and an incredible storyteller. He was also known to stretch the truth for the sake of a better story. He used to tell a tale about going to Israel to entertain IDF troops during the 6-Day War, and of how in the middle of the Sinai Desert he played harmonica in a concert for the tank corps. When he played the then-newly written song “Sharm El Sheikh” as his finale, the troops went nuts, and insisted he play not one, not two, but six encores of Sharm El Sheikh. Many years later he admitted that he didn’t actually play any encores at all; it was a time-limited concert. He was just blowing smoke, not blowing harmonica encores. But those six encores made for a much better story. As Larry Adler said, “Raconteur is a very polite word for liar.”

Or as Rabbi Jack Reimer put it, “All of my stories are true and some of them even happened.”

But we are not talking about that kind of gentle white lie, about stories that have a truth to impart and can withstand a little creativity. We are talking about something much more insidious and dangerous.

In Through the Looking Glass Charles Dodgson as Lewis Carroll writes, “'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.'” Or as the President of the United States said not too long ago, “What you're seeing and what you're reading is not what's happening.” Or as Rudolph Giuliani, former Mayor of New York and the president’s lawyer said, “The truth is not the truth.”

Without making this too political I want to talk about how differently Judaism understands the word truth, emet.

Truth is associated almost universally with God’s essential nature. In fact, the Hebrew word “Emet,” truth, is considered to be an aspect of God. The Talmud tells us that, “Truth is the seal of God.” And the Zohar teaches that, “There is no faith without truth.” As Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel puts it in Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of the Ancestors, “The world is sustained on three things: by justice, by truth, and by peace.”

In a larger sense, God is actually composed of truth; that is, God is truth. As we say at the end of the Shema, Adonai Eloheichem Emet—God, your Lord, is truth. Rashi teaches that the Hebrew word for truth, emet, is formed from the very first letter of the alphabet, alef, a middle letter, mem, and the final letter, tav. That is, the whole alphabet of the Lashon Kodesh, the holy language of Hebrew testifies to truth. In the Torah service there is a magnificent meditation, taken from The Zohar, that says, “The Lord is the God of truth, the Torah is truth, the prophets are truth.” The God of truth is found wherever there is truth, and God’s absence is felt wherever there is falsehood.

Truth in Judaism is profound, eternal and unchangeable. It is not relative. It is not the result of some careful combination of bombast, advertising and weak memories. It is not the result of persuasive opinions repeated endlessly. It is not based on aggressively propounded invented stories pretending to be fact. It is not—not—the denial of facts in the service of dishonest motives. It is not a lie that pretends to be true to one person or party’s devious advantage.

Truth is real, unmediated and honest. It is fact. It is hard, concrete, unshaken. And truth is, in essence, what God represents. To actively promote falsehood is more than wrong—it is an abomination. And it damages everyone involved.

Filmmaker Joseph E. Levine said, “"You can fool all the people all the time if the advertising is right and the budget is big enough." But that is simply being fooled. That doesn’t change the facts, which do not have alternative versions. In our tradition, and in the world in which we actually live, facts are solid, and there are truths that are immutable no matter how people feel about them.

This is not to say that even in Judaism there isn’t an understanding that some unpleasant facts, some irksome truths are too difficult for us to accept in real time. Or even for God to accept. The most famous example of this comes from a famous Midrash about creation.

Rabbi Shimon said, “When the Holy One, blessed be God, came to create Adam, the first human being, the ministering angels formed themselves into groups and parties, some of them saying, ‘Let him be created,’ while others urged, ‘let him not be created.’ At that point Love and Truth fought against one another, and Righteousness and Peace fought each other (Ps. 85:11). Love said, ‘Let the human being be created, because he will dispense acts of love;’ Truth said, ‘Let the human being not be created, because he is made out of falsehood;’ Righteousness said, ‘Let him be created, because he will perform righteous deeds;’ Peace said, ‘Let him not be created, because he is full of strife.’ What did the Holy One do? He took Truth and cast it to the ground.” (Genesis Rabbah, 8:5)

That is, God decided to overcome truth—and who can argue that human beings lie, and do so often?—and literally toss out the unpleasant truth that human beings should probably not be created. In other words, we don’t merit having been created, if the truth really is told. But God, with infinite compassion and love, saw the potential good in us and insisted we be created.

The great Kotzker Rebbe posed an interesting question about this Midrash: “What good would it do to only banish the Truth. Peace, which also argued against the creation of human beings, still remained.” The answer is that in banishing the Truth, peace is ensured since the root of most fighting is that everyone battles for his or her own truth. Without the lightning rod of “the Truth” there can be peace.

But is it necessary to deny truth just to avoid conflict? Isn’t that a recipe for ultimate deception, basing our lives on false premises? And isn’t that actually the opposite of what we must do, personally, during these days of Repentance?

For just as our society needs a return to the truth, and to reality, so too we need honesty in our own lives. In order to do teshuvah, in order to personally change for the better in this season of introspection and return, we must be honest, brutally honest with ourselves. Just as we must be honest about where our society is and how it is struggling with truth, so we must be honest with ourselves, able to confess the truth, however painful, about who we are and what we must do to grow and improve.

And trust me, it is a good deal harder to be honest about yourself than it is to critique the dishonesty so prevalent in our world. I’m reminded of another Shakespearean quote, this one from Autolycus in “A Winter’s Tale,” in which he says, “Though I am not naturally honest, I am so sometimes by chance.” Well, this Yom HaDin, this Day of Judgment, is the chance, even if we are not always so honest with ourselves.

If you, like me, are distressed by the damage to truth taking place in contemporary society, by the repetitions of the Big Lie and the attempts to fragment our world along deeply misinformed ideological lines, then you owe it to yourself to tell the truth about your own life over this yomtov. Because if we can begin by telling God, and ourselves, the truth about our own lives, then perhaps we can start to correct this distressing situation of falsehood in our society and our world.

Over these High Holy Days may we each do the serious soul-searching that we must do in truth. Let us strive, above all, to do so honestly. And if we can do that, then in this coming year let us insist that those who represent us, and who speak to the world about what is happening in the world, do so based on facts, in truth.

May this be God’s will—and, more importantly, ours. Ken Yehi Ratson.

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