By Rabbi Robert Tobin
B’nai Shalom, West Orange NJ
Yom Kippur, 5779
In the evening service every night of the year, the minyan leader combines the last two words of the last paragraph of the shema with the first word of the next paragraph to form a brief and entirely new sentence. This new sentence is at the heart of what is wrong in our society today, and the politics that so divide us.
I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God. I, the Lord, am your God. That is familiar to us, and very straightforward. In the evening service, we then say, Emet ve’Emunah kol zot v’kayam aleinu, ki huAdonai Eloheinu v’ein zulato, va’anachnu Yisrael Amo. True and faithful is all of this for us, that God is the Lord our God, and no other, and we are God’s people Israel.
In the morning service, the reading is slightly different. The first words after the Shema are Emet ve’yatziv v’nakhon v’kayam v’yashar v’ne’eman v’ahuv v’chaviv v’nechmad v’na’im v’nora v’adir u’m’tukkan u’m’kubal v’tov v’yafeh, hadavar hazeh aleinu l’olam va’ed. This thing is true and lasting, correct, enduring, straight, believable, beloved, cherished, pleasant, enjoyable, awe-filled, mighty, ordered, accepted, good, and beautiful for us for ever. Emet Elohei Olam malkeinu, tzur ya’akov magen yish’einu. True the eternal God is our king, rock of Jacob, shield of our salvation.
So each of those services has the shema end with the affirmation “I am the Lord your God,” followed by the word “Emet,” or true. Emet v’emunah, True and faithful are these words and our relationship with God. Or Emet v’yatziv, True and lasting are these words and God’s eternal protecting rule. I am the Lord your God. And that relationship is true.
But when the prayer leader, according to universal Jewish custom, repeats the last two words of the shema and pulls out that one first word of the next paragraph, Emet – “truth” she or she makes a bold new statement: Adonai Eloheikhem Emet – The Lord your God is Truth. God is truth. Everything true is of God, God is only that which is true.
This morning I want to talk about truth.
Truth is a term used to indicate various forms of accord with fact or reality, or fidelity to a standard or ideal. The opposite of truth is falsehood, which, correspondingly, can also take on logical, factual, or ethical meanings.
Truth may also often be used in modern contexts to refer to an idea of "truth to self", or authenticity.
The difference between truth and fact is that fact is something that cannot be combated with reasoning, for it is objectively and provably so. But truth is something which depends on a person's perspective and experience as much as the facts that it is describing. Truth is dependent on, grounded in, and disprovable by facts. But it is also contextualized and shaped by our beliefs. The one True God. A Hindu would, of course, argue the point. When I say that I believe in one God, I believe that to be a fact. And it is true. But while all facts are true, not all truths seem to be facts. I would argue that this breakdown of truth is a gaping wound in our society and one that needs to be rigorously fixed.
Is truth relative? Is truth subjective? Is what’s true for me necessarily true for you? Or is truth true with or without me and you, and we merely discover it or live in ignorance? There is a long and ancient arc of philosophical debate on the topic. There is a phenomenal aspect to true which can not be denied. Hegel’s called it ‘the presence or presentation of essence’ (Margins of Philosophy, Chicago, 1982, 120); ‘the presence of the being, here in the form of presence adequate to itself’ (80); Husser said the givenness of the thing itself in intuition; Heidegger describes ‘the alleged simplicity of the opening, of the aperity – the letting-be, the truth that lifts the veil-screen’ (Dissemination, Chicago, 1981, 314).
The deconstructionist move in postmodern philosophy argues that truth is context and a kind of layering on top of facts that can be unpeeled like an onion to discover levels of cultural assumptions and personal experiences which become the real sense of truth, but which are removed from the phenomenon about which they speak. My love is true, is qualified by every other experience of love I may have had, who the I is, and if the love is just love or if there is someone or something that I am loving. Why and how I love that person or thing is another layer, in relation to them, based on desire, enjoyment, appreciation or even loyalty. My love is true does not tell you what love is, or who I am.
The debate between the two is about objectivity. Is what is true, absolutely true. Or is truth what the person and the society at the time hold to be true? For example, to newly constituted Supreme Court will almost certainly revisit Roe v. Wade and a woman’s right to choose her own reproductive path in pregnancy. But a major consideration for many is the life of the embryo. When does life begin? When does human life begin? Is it at birth with a breath of air? Is it at brain activity? Is it at the formation of limbs and organs? Is it at conception or implant? A biological truth is that the sperm and the ova themselves are alive. Somewhere a judgment will be made that is based in truth as judgment, not truth as fact. Whatever we do, we must base truth in fact.
Watch cable news shows. Try to break down the tactics of the debate or the panel of analysts. Often one person will interject, “to tell you the truth…” and then say whatever it is they have been trying to say. Mere rhetoric is when they follow it with opinion. How often do they follow it with facts?
Remember, facts are data. Information is organized data for a useful purpose. Intelligence is the application of information to a specific purpose. As soon as facts and data become information, someone has organized it for you and we aren’t just dealing with facts anymore. I believe that truth the relationship between facts and the person making judgments that result in useful information. Unfortunately, in our current political system, people use truth in the intelligence efforts to operationalize data. Data is compiled, producing information, but the information is weaponized. I can say it this way, to have this effect, to create this impression, to make people feel this, to make them vote this way. The eventual statements are connected to a train of interpretation and subjectivity that leaves the fact set far behind, but in the name of so-called truth. This is the skill of the master manipulators.
So the deconstruction of Derrida and other postmodernists give me the tools to uncover these weaponized truths, these manipulations. But rather than conclude that truth is therefore elusive and belief is all that matters, I turn it back to fact. Roll it back words. Unpack it. Know where fact became information Where did the information come from. When did the information get skewed as intelligence for a purpose, and weaponized?
I have a challenge for you. Most Americans right now have their favorite news sources on television. Let’s say you gravitate to CNN, of Fox News, or some other source. Hopefully you can admit that your news source is biased. You may agree with its bias, but it is not just presenting facts or even information. It is fully weaponized. Here is the challenge. From tonight until the end of the month – just 10 days – watch the other side. Go over to the dark side and watch their news for 10 days. Don’t watch your news at all. Suspend your paper, close your app. Live on the other side for 10 days. If it is Israel news, you can go to the left or the right, or even to Al Jazeera. Go somewhere really uncomfortable and stay there for 10 days.
Note your feelings. Note your resistances. Listen to their logic and their allusions. Unpack their prejudices, but find their truths. What is their information based on? How many fact-based statements are made, even if you disagree with the conclusions they are coming to.
When you come back from the 10 days, watch your own news programs with the same criticism that you watched the other side. Look at what they do, and why they do it.
What the postmodernists teach us to do is recognize the truth of rational judgment. We ultimately have to judge if something is true. We make contact with being, with facts and reality, but a true judgment occurs in the wake of those facts.
When the prayer leader declares, Adonai Eloheikhem Emet – and makes a new sentence “The Lord your God is Truth.” He or she is actually quoting from Jeremiah 10:10
וַיהוָה אֱלֹהִים אֱמֶת הוּא־אֱלֹהִים חַיִּים וּמֶלֶךְ עוֹלָם מִקִּצְפּוֹ תִּרְעַשׁ הָאָרֶץ וְלֹא־יָכִלוּ גוֹיִם זַעְמוֹ׃
But the LORD is truly God: He is a living God, The everlasting King. At His wrath, the earth quakes, And nations cannot endure His rage.
Jeremiah introduces divine wrath to the idea of truth. From his wrath the earth quakes But the Hebrew is Mikitzpo, from his wrath, tir’ash ha’aratz the earth is engaged in mighty noise. Ra’ash. The opposite of truth is not falsehood in our day. The opposite of truth is noise.
In midrash shir hashirim rabba 1:9:1, it is asked “what is truth?” Everything that is true, is done in judgment. For Isaiah proclaimed, I saw God seated on his high and exalted throne. And that is the throne of judgment. What is truth? Rabbi Ayvun, that God is living and eternal. Rabbi Elazar said, everyplace where it says Hashem, it is Him and his beit din. And what is Kayam? Enduring? That he signs and seals, He alone with no one else. And what is God’s signature? Emet. Truth. When God signs our judgment in the book, He signs the word Emet. Truth. As it says in the Book of Daniel (10:21)
אֲבָל֙ אַגִּ֣יד לְךָ֔ אֶת־הָרָשׁ֥וּם בִּכְתָ֖ב אֱמֶ֑ת וְאֵ֨ין אֶחָ֜ד מִתְחַזֵּ֤ק עִמִּי֙ עַל־אֵ֔לֶּה כִּ֥י אִם־מִיכָאֵ֖ל שַׂרְכֶֽם׃ (פ)
No one is helping me against them except your prince, Michael. However, I will tell you what is recorded in the book of truth.
The midrash asks, recorded in the book of truth? If it is true, what record it? If it is recorded by God, why do you have to say it is true? It is because, the judgment of God can be recorded, but it is still not final until signed by Emet. Reish Lakish asks why Emet? Because the letters of Emet, aleph, mem, tav are the first middle and last of the Hebrew Alphabet. Quoting Isaiah (44:6) he says, I God am first, I am last, and besides me there is no other. I was king from no other. I will never hand the universe off to another. And there is no other now with me. Emet is the structure of the universe and its relationship with God.
All of this is why I am sorely distressed by the content of political discourse today and the choices we are given. It is nearly impossible to find actual truth in politics, if you listen to the noise. The noise is ra’ash. It is cacophony, not truth. That thing that is said which derails all hard work, all discourse, because it is patently absurd, overtly prejudicial, shocking or contrary to long held beliefs about who we are as a people or a nation… that thing that is said is noise.
In April of 2017, Time Magazine ran a stark cover – all Black with large red words: “Is Truth Dead?” It is a lament that all objective thinking must take seriously. Less known to many is the reference of that cover article. It is a recreation of their 1966 cover, “Is God Dead?” The answer then was no. The answer now is no. But look at the changes in society since the death of God claims in the 1960’s and ask yourself, “What fundamental changes to society may be in play if we lose a common sense of Truth?”
Do we just say, “they are all liars so I will vote for the party that I agree with?” Does association trump truth? Yale law professor Amy Chua has addressed this in her book Political Tribes, which are forcefully described a closed mindedness which I find frightening.
“When groups feel threatened, they retreat into tribalism. They close ranks and become more insular, more defensive, more punitive, more us-versus-them. In America today, every group feels this way to some extent. Whites and blacks, Latinos and Asians, men and women, Christians, Jews, and Muslims, straight people and gay people, liberals and conservatives—all feel their groups are being attacked, bullied, persecuted, discriminated against. Of course, one group’s claims to feeling threatened and voiceless are often met by another group’s derision because it discounts their own feelings of persecution—but such is political tribalism.”
To be honest, we Jews have made a living being tribal for a very long time. And it is not all negative as Professor Chua seems to feel. But the tribal identity does have a basic need which she points out: the need to exclude. And when America becomes tribal, there is no common ground.
And truth is the victim to tribal loyalty. The other side, whoever that is, is a presumed liar for their own purpose. And your side, validation bias it is called, is pure and true and good. We need to break tribal ties in politics. We need to embrace tribal identities in culture and in religion, but break them in politics. Our differences in judgment, in the creation of values and communities are deep and important. And our differences in political policy are deep and important. But truth wins out in the end, and falsehood can not stand.
We live in an age of perjury traps that come from a life lived without genuine truth. People are afraid of cross examination because they are either not committed to the truth, or not knowledgeable enough to be consistent in their answers. Ignorance or dissimilitude. One or the other is the main explanation for fear of testimony. Which stops you from being honest about what matters the most?
When our tradition asserts that truth is God, that God is truth, it stares at our current political cacophony in horror. When a news program includes assertions that truth is not truth, that one person’s truth contradicts another person’s truth, that there is no truth so we shouldn’t seek truth, we have fallen into a rhetorical trap that is meant to immobilize us. I believe that there is always truth, that it is objective as an idea grounded in facts. The sky is blue. The grass is green. But judgment is real, and judgment is what we are talking about in politics. Is the sky beautiful when it is blue? My judgment of the facts is different from your judgment of the facts. And our tradition asserts that ultimately, our judgments will be judged. The standard of truth will bear out amidst your judgments and actions.
Perhaps Shakespeare said it best of falsehood and politics: Time's glory is to calm contending kings, To unmask falsehood and bring truth to light, To stamp the seal of time in aged things, To wake the morn of sentinel the night, To wrong the wronger till he render right, To ruinate proud buildings with thy hour And smear with dust their glittering golden towers. (from The Rape of Lucrece)
But God’s hour is long, and our time is short on the Earth. And the abandonment of truth as a standard is rampant in our society and in our politics. Hold your political leaders to a standard of truth. The fact is we don’t have time to wait for God to prove true and false, right and wrong. We need to actually vote. We need to make decisions based on truth. We need to commit ourselves to breaking out of our CNN or Fox news bubbles, and hear a variety of voices. We need to take topic by topic, person by person, the issues of the day. We need to be willing to vote outside of your tribe for the sake of truth. Seek truth and pursue it in your business, in your families, in your lives.
We are created in the image of God. If Adonai Eloheikhem Emet, the Lord your God is truth, then you too shall be truth. You shall be living truth, pursuing truth. Are you able and willing to push aside the ra’ash, the noise of manipulation and falsehood and act based on facts and reality? You must be, for the good of us all.
Faith, in the end, must be based in truth. We must not merely believe in some fanciful mystical system, but in a plausible, possible, likely explanation of what really is. If you are talking to a rabbi who believes that the world is literally and factually 5779 years old, you need to find a new rabbi. Because they are not able to hear truth, see truth, or engage in truth beyond their own narrow and closed system. If you are listening to a politician who is repeatedly saying things that are simply false, then you need to fire them in the ballot box, regardless of your tribal affiliations. The opposite of truth is noise. You have to power to eliminate the noise by committing to truth over opinion.
In the end, there is a truth to our lives. As individuals, we hope that our story and our facts will line up. We lived according to our beliefs, and our beliefs and actions were true. Our love was true. Our hope was true.
This is what we declare at the funeral or the graveside of a loved one, when we tear our garments in mourning. Barukh Dayan haEmet. Blessed is the God of truth. Only God knows all truth, and all truth is known by God. The truth of our lives, what we really did and did not do, is held and known by God and not us. We don’t know everything about anyone, but God does. And when our time comes, our loved ones will need to be content not knowing everything, but that doesn’t mean that everything is unknowable. There is One, who does know. What I am left not knowing when I grieve and mourn, I will one day know and understand when I can look out through God’s eyes at my own life. Barukh Dayan HaEmet.
And so, this morning, we join as a community of Truth. We commit ourselves to an unflinching, and unwavering exploration of our own truth. We reject ideas of complete relativism or destructive tribalism in the face of truth. And we look to the One who is the source of truth, and the destiny of truth. Adonai Eloheikhem Emet.
And in memory, we declare that God is the holder of the truth of our lives and of those we recall in sacred memorial this morning, as we begin our Yizkor service….