At what point did deceit become kosher in our society? It's true that American political campaigns have a long and ignoble history of finger-pointing and aiming low and twisting the facts. But there's something new afoot. The degree of deceit that is acceptable to us is now vastly greater. Ads and campaign speeches and interviews are full of bold-faced lies. What's new is that in the name of winning and of power, any degree of manipulation of truth is now acceptable.
News media organizations that specialize in spinning facts to reflect a political agenda are now mainstream. On the Internet, we can build ourselves up by finding arguments in favor of any idea, despite the validity of the facts. Candidates have figured out that facts matter less than the need to appeal to people's baser fears and angers in order to get votes.
We're living in a time that goes overboard with relativism. We have developed a postmodern mind-set after the violent upheavals of the 20th century, one that rightly mistrusts absolutist ideas and values. At its best, our current wisdom understands that our experience of truth itself is highly subjective. We understand the dangers of those who claim to know the truth, and then demonize all who disagree with them.
Our modern-day wisdom can just as easily lead us into a trap. A healthy skepticism of claims to the truth can slip into moral relativism and apathy. In my teaching, I regularly encounter well-meaning and brilliant learners who express surprise that not all perspectives are equal on all issues. I have encountered many others who bristle at the notion that Judaism values hierarchies of values and ethics. When all opinions are equal and all moral playing fields are level, why should anyone speak out against politicians ignoring the value of truth?
In the Jerusalem Talmud, a midrash teaches that when God gave the Torah to Moses on Mount Sinai, God simultaneously gave Moses 49 ways to declare something pure and 49 ways to declare that same thing impure. This teaching seems to suggest that truth itself really is malleable, that all playing fields really are level. In fact, it suggests the opposite. While it's always true that we can find just as many reasons to sanctify as to demonize any issue or people, the Torah itself is meant to be the medium by which we find our experience of the truth. Moses may have received all possible truths at Sinai, but in each generation, we must study and investigate and treat all issues with the respect of those who found their truth and came before us. It may be that today we declare something "pure" which in previous generations was deemed "impure," but we make this decision with humility and the greatest of care. Inherent in this teaching is the notion that we must be on guard against apathy and moral relativism because truth can be so very subjective.
Each day, when I daven, I take very seriously the way we end the three paragraphs of the Sh'ma. We link phrases together and say "Hashem Eloheichem emet." The Lord your God is truth. The word "emet," "truth" appears over and over after that: it is emet that God is the God of our ancestors, it is emet that God took us out of Egypt, etc. When we bless the Torah for an aliyah, we say "Asher natan lanu Torat emet," we bless God who has given us the "Torah of Truth." In the Babylonian Talmud, we find the famous statement, "Truth is the seal of the Holy One, Blessed be He," and in Rashi's commentary, he explains that the word emet is composed of the Hebrew letters alef, mem, tav - the very first, the middle, and very last letter of the Hebrew alef-bet. And, as Louis Jacobs explains, wherever there is truth, God is present.
Wherever there is deceit, God is absent.
We have come a long way in our current society from these insights. Our Jewish heritage wants us to understand the sacredness of truth itself. In seeing the truth as nothing short of the divine presence, we have become a people of learners, who actively seek understanding of all aspects of our world. Our American society today has become defined not by truth-seeking, but by cynicism. We have warped the wisdom of truth-as-subjective experience and turned it into a weapon against unsuspecting voters. As Jews, we must be the champions for the value of truth in all things - in our political discourse, in our communication, in our policy-making.
When it's all said and done, the truth will always win. But we, as Jews, can play a critical role in ensuring that the truth for this country is one that reflects justice and all that is good and holy in our humanity.