When God was about to create human beings, a midrash shows that God formed an ad-hoc creation committee meeting. God invited the ministering angels to help decide whether or not to create humanity. The angels were divided on their opinions: Love said, Let Adam be created, and he will do loving deeds. Peace said, Let him not be created because he will be all quarrelsome and discord. Righteousness said, Let him be created because he will do righteous deeds. But Truth said, Let him not be created because he will be full of deceit.
The vote was two for, and two against. What did God do? God grabbed Truth and cast the angel to the earth. Then the other angels said to God, Why do you despise your Angel of Truth? God responded, Truth will rise out of the earth.
In the Talmud (Shabbat 55a) , we learn that Truth is the seal of The Holy One. It’s not power, kindness, or holiness. The Hebrew word for truth, emet, is the combination of the first letter of the alphabet, aleph, the middle, mem, and the last, taf. This combination suggests that truth is full and complete, from the beginning all to the end. Rashi suggests that God is felt whenever truth is present.
Truth can be slippery. Many of us resonate with Stephen Colbert’s use of the word, ‘truthiness.’ He sardonically points out the distinction between people who think with their head, and people who ‘know’ in their heart.
Judaism speaks strongly to the pursuit of truth, not truthiness. In Deuteronomy, when Moses recounts the 13 attributes of God, truth is the seventh attribute listed, right in the middle. Our Torah is True and enduring. Many of our Mitzvot are concerned with honesty - in business, in friendship, and in love.
God hurled truth down to the ground so that the truth would be present within us - so that God would be present within us.
Lately, our society’s relationship with truth has been complicated.
I don’t know when it happened, or why it happened, but we have seemed to have forgotten the differences between fact, opinion and preference.
I think that in today’s era of fake news and alternative facts, we are fighting with the politicized nature of truth itself. We must rededicate ourselves to the ideals of emet.
The challenge lies partly in our culture. We place a premium on personal autonomy. Even our Jewish denomination of Reform Judaism does so, as each of us is tasked to make personal religious choices. My choices are going to be different than yours, and to a certain extent, each of us is our own rabbi.
A wonderful Talmudic passage (Yoma 69B) discusses several of our ancestors and the way that they recited part of our most important prayer, The Amidah. Some of them omitted a different attribute of God, and you may remember from earlier that these attributes came from none other than Moses . Their contemporaries can not believe their chutzpah - How could they be abolish something established by Moses? Rabbi Eleazar responds to them, God insists on truth, and as such, they would not ascribe false things to God.
This suggests that God wants each of us to describe our truth, even if it is against popular opinion, even if it goes against what might have been previous tradition, and even if it goes sometimes against revered teachers.
There was an ancient rabbi who had several students. The rabbi was letting the students take turns giving their interpretation of a Torah portion. One student raised his hand to offer a thought. After listening to is student, the rabbi told him that he was wrong! The student took a deep breath of courage and said, But rabbi, haven’t you taught us that there are 70 interpretations for every Torah portion? And the rabbi replies, Yes, but yours isn’t one of the seventy!
Not every choice is equal. A central teaching in improv comedy is that while there are may not necessarily be any one definitive right choice, there are often better choices, and there are most definitely wrong choices. I don’t want us to make the mistake of equating personal autonomy with the belief that every opinion is a valid expression of a correct answer, or of a certain kind of truth.
Earlier this year, I read an article by Tom Nichols called, The Death of Expertise. He writes: Democracy denotes a system of government, not an actual state of equality. It means that we enjoy equal rights versus the government, and in relation to each other. But having equal rights does not mean having equal talents, equal abilities, or equal knowledge. It assuredly does not mean that everyone’s opinion about anything is as good as anyone else’s.
I’m not suggesting that we don’t sometimes have strong feelings, opinions and preferences. This is who God created us to be. But God also created us to recognize when we don’t know enough about a particular issue, and to find others who may have more knowledge or experience. Emet is not only about speaking truth. It is about seeking truth. And sometimes, that truth may be uncomfortable or inconvenient.
A few months ago, I finished reading The Signal and the Noise, by Nate Silver. His Web site, 538.com, predicted the outcomes of the 2008 and 2012 presidential election to an almost prescient degree. One of the main points of the book is to show that we are very bad at predicting things, even when we have accurate information. Perhaps even more shocking, Silver demonstrates that quite often, knowledge of more facts is more likely to lead us to the wrong decision!
I think this is because too often, when we seek out facts, what we are really doing is cherry picking information from a source that already accords with our opinion. We’re not really searching for the right answer, we’re searching to make sure that what we already think is the right answer. This is not the kind of information that we need to seek out - we’re already far too good at it already. We have Social media, blogs and 24 hour news channels … The problem isn’t a lack of data. The problem is a lack of truth.
Seeking out truth is not a measure of being right. It’s a measure of humility, similar to the humility I talked about last night. Even with our strong opinions and preferences, we often lack important facts of experience. We need to seek these out.
In Exodus, the Torah tells us that just before making a momentous life decision, Moses looked this way and that way, and he saw no one about.
When seeking out the truth, especially on matters of consequence, we need to be humble enough to look this way and that way, to look to the left and the right. And yes, I mean to the political left and to the political right. Both are guilty of only looking to one side. We are guilty of only looking to one side.
Instead of opinions and preferences, we need to value and pursue factual evidence. Get more information. Talk to people. Read. Read other news sources than the one you typically rely on.
More than ever, we must be able to unite in this goal. We must seek out facts, sometimes at the expense of our opinions or preferences or stereotypes. And when I say seek out, I mean proactively, with intention and purpose.
One of my professors used to say that unless we can truthfully describe ourselves and our world, we will not be able to change ourselves and our world. This year, let us rededicate ourselves to emet. Then, all of God’s angels will smile down on us from the heavens, complementing God’s decision to create us, as truth will have sprouted forth.