Skip to main content

Kosher Deceit?

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.


Popular posts from this blog

“We have Nothing to Fear”:  My speech on the future of Conservative Judaism at the USCJ Convention in Atlanta

The Importance of Keruv

I would like to teach us all a very important value in Jewish life known as Keruv.Keruv literally means ‘to bring close,’ ‘to draw near.’Throughout our history, the word “keruv” has meant the endeavor to bring close all those among are people who are, for whatever reason, feeling far away from the community.Keruv is a beautiful Jewish value that is all about welcoming.It’s the heart and soul of what has sustained us as a community for generations.The Jewish value of Keruv goes a long way back in Judaism. It seems that many of the great biblical figures were also especially concerned with Keruv. And their lives and stories teach us much about how to draw other people Karov, close to Judaism.
There was Aharon, the High Priest, the brother of Moses, for example. Our tradition tells us that he just had a magnificent talent for Keruv. When the Mishnah talks about Aharon, it says that he was Ohev Shalom v’Rodef Shalom, Oheiv et haBriot, umekarvan latorah: that he loved peace and pursued peac…

Yom Kippur 5773: HaMakom

​When Batya and I were first married, we drove across country, from California  (where we had been living for our rabbinic studies) back home to the East Coast.  We stopped on the way for a visit to the Grand Canyon.  There was a ticketing area that exited to a wooded pathway that led to the rim of the canyon.  As we started out on the path, cranky after hours in the car, we got into one of those typical first-year-of-marriage little spats; some disagreement over a petty issue--the kind of disagreements that couples who have been married a few years don’t have anymore.  She wanted to go camping and I wanted to stay in a hotel (I have long since learned, when my wife wants to go camping--we go camping!)  The argument didn’t end quickly.  It got more and more frustrating, and we decided to stop on the pathway and stand off to the side to see if we could just finish the discussion before continuing, so as not to spoil the whole visit.  Well, the argument just didn’t end as quickly as we …