Following my previous ‘ethical will’ entry on ‘listening’ and the profoundly divisive aftermath of the 2020 U.S. Presidential elections, which once again reveals a country broken jaggedly in half, I’ve been thinking a lot about the pervasive lack of trust that has come to typify today’s global politics.
Yes, we must listen to one another earnestly, but why don’t we?
Fundamentally, it comes down to a lack of trust. Americans don’t trust one another to have their best interests at heart, nor do they trust their public institutions, nor the fourth estate. Why were the pre-election polls so drastically wrong this year, particularly following the pollsters’ epic embarrassment of 2016? Whence the preposterous, gaping chasm between Americans, policymakers, and opinion-molders?
We don’t trust others to tell us the truth; or perhaps we no longer trust in those truths, which are most available. Access to information used to be conveniently provided to the people by big money interests and power brokers, which used to work for them beautifully, but the modern information age has left them nary a shadow to hide in.
Personally, I find myself increasingly turning to independent and conflicting news sources across the political spectrum to calibrate my impression of reality. More often than not, I remain unconvinced by them all.
Truth is a challenging subject for me because I am the sort who has to push through cowardice to speak it. Still, truthfulness is something that I admired in my father, continue to admire in my mother, and admire in all of my role models. Truth impresses, challenges, and scares me.
The first entry in my ‘ethical will’ focused on being true to one’s self… but what about being honest with others? While I am hardly the most qualified to expound upon this particular ideal, it would be negligent of me to omit it from my will.
What priority should we place on honesty, and what limits might we consider?
According to the Torah we are to distance ourselves from matters/words of falsehood, the only sin from which the Torah warns us to “distance” ourselves (Exodus 23:7):
|מִדְּבַר-שֶׁקֶר, תִּרְחָק; וְנָקִי וְצַדִּיק אַל-תַּהֲרֹג, כִּי לֹא-אַצְדִּיק רָשָׁע.||Keep thee far from a false matter; and the innocent and righteous slay thou not; for I will not justify the wicked.|
Taking a different tack, the Book of Proverbs (a later book of the Hebrew Bible) provides practical counsel on the matter, rather than commanding us (12:19):
|שְׂפַת-אֱמֶת, תִּכּוֹן לָעַד; וְעַד-אַרְגִּיעָה, לְשׁוֹן שָׁקֶר.||The lip of truth shall be established for ever; a lying tongue is for a moment.|
As expected, truth is a popular theme in Jewish tradition, as I imagine it would be in all faith traditions that lay claim to its mantle, which is to say: all of them. Another popular, oft-cited Jewish text on truth can be found in the Talmud (Tractate Shabbat, 55a):
|… ור”ל אמר תיו סוף חותמו של הקב”ה דאמר רבי חנינא חותמו של הקב”ה אמת אמר ר’ שמואל בר נחמני אלו בני אדם שקיימו את התור’ כולה מאלף ועד תיו…||… and [Rabbi] Resh Lakish said: [The letter] ‘tav’ [which is the final letter of the alphabet] is the end of the seal of the Holy One, blessed be He, for R. Hanina said: The seal of the Holy One, blessed be He, is emeth [truth] [which ends with a ‘tav’]. R. Samuel b. Nahmani said: It denotes the people who fulfilled the Torah from ‘alef’ [the first letter of the alphabet] to ‘tav’…|
I won’t belabor the point further, for it’s the simplest of truths:
People of decency
ought to strive for truth.
But – are there limits? There must be some, right?
The Jewish textual tradition often impresses me with its good sense, which is one of the reasons that I remain drawn to it. One of the most famous examples of a lie, which is not only permitted but actually encouraged, arose from a dispute between the renowned ancient Houses of the Rabbis Hillel and Shammai, which the House of Hillel won (Talmud, Tractate Ketubot 16b-17a):
|תנו רבנן כיצד מרקדין לפני הכלה בית שמאי אומרים כלה כמות שהיא ובית הלל אומרים כלה נאה וחסודה אמרו להן ב”ש לב”ה הרי שהיתה חיגרת או סומא אומרי’ לה כלה נאה וחסודה והתורה אמרה (שמות כג) מדבר שקר תרחק אמרו להם ב”ה לב”ש לדבריכם מי שלקח מקח רע מן השוק ישבחנו בעיניו או יגננו בעיניו הוי אומר ישבחנו בעיניו מכאן אמרו חכמים לעולם תהא דעתו של אדם מעורבת עם הבריות||Our Rabbis taught: How does one dance before the bride? The House of Shammai say: The bride as she is. And The House of Hillel say: ‘Beautiful and graceful bride’! The House of Shammai said to the House of Hillel: If she was lame or blind, does one say of her: ‘Beautiful and graceful bride’? Whereas the Torah said, ‘Keep thee far from a false matter’ (Ex. 23:7). Said the House of Hillel to the House of Shammai: According to your words, if one has made a bad purchase in the market, should one praise it in his eyes or depreciate it? Surely, one should praise it in his eyes. Therefore, the Sages said: Always should the disposition of man be pleasant with people.|
Even more broadly, the Jewish tradition teaches us that we may “modify a statement” for the sake of peace, based upon God’s behavior in the story of Abraham and Sarah. The sage Rashi (1040-1105) picked up on a nuance in these two verses (Gen. 18:13-14):
|יב. וַתִּצְחַק שָׂרָה, בְּקִרְבָּהּ לֵאמֹר: אַחֲרֵי בְלֹתִי הָיְתָה-לִּי עֶדְנָה, וַאדֹנִי זָקֵן?||12. And Sarah laughed to herself, saying: ‘After I am withered shall I have pleasure, my husband being old?’|
|יג. וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה, אֶל-אַבְרָהָם: לָמָּה זֶּה צָחֲקָה שָׂרָה לֵאמֹר, הַאַף אֻמְנָם אֵלֵד–וַאֲנִי זָקַנְתִּי?||13. And the LORD said unto Abraham: ‘Wherefore did Sarah laugh, saying: Shall I of a surety bear a child, old as I am?|
Rashi pointed out that when speaking to Abraham, following His promise to Sarah, God changed Sarah’s words so her husband would not know that she had been laughing at his old age. The lesson derived from the distinction between these two verses was also underscored in the Talmud (Tractate Yevamot 65b):
|וא”ר אילעא משום רבי אלעזר בר’ שמעון מותר לו לאדם לשנות בדבר השלום… דבי רבי ישמעאל תנא גדול השלום שאף הקדוש ברוך הוא שינה בו דמעיקרא כתיב (בראשית יח) ואדוני זקן ולבסוף כתיב ואני זקנתי:||R. Ile’a further stated in the name of R. Eleazar son of R. Simeon: One may modify a statement in the interests of peace… At the School of R. Ishmael it was taught: Great is the cause of peace. Seeing that for its sake even the Holy One, blessed be He, modified a statement; for at first it is written, My husband being old, while afterwards it is written, And I am old.|
It seems that the Jewish tradition approaches the ideal of speaking the truth very sensibly. After all, we are only human, and so few of our relationships in this world work out tidily. Telling the truth is an ideal that we should always aim for, and the acceptable exceptions to this rule are only for the sakes of other people. Even then, we ought to be wary, for in my personal experience, the road to hell is truly paved with good intentions.
My Papa was a man of the utmost integrity, but he was also a very practical man. Ultimately, I remember him prioritizing the golden rule above all else.
In my childhood, he was always disappointed in me for my falsehoods and deceptions, but mostly because of how my lack of consideration for others (including him and Mama) reflected upon my character. Suffice it to say that I wasn’t lying for the sake of peace, as the Talmud would have it.
Thinking through this now, I’m not at all sure of the best balance between truth and intention, which I suppose is ultimately a situational matter. Nobody ever said that being a moral person is easy.
I am wondering which of these is at the root of our increasing lack of trust in our leaders and institutions… perhaps a bit of both?