Oy, with the news these days I have been kind o f nostalgic for times gone by. You know, life was simpler in the olden days. Days gone by when you didn’t worry that the Constitutional system of American government might implode. Yes, the good old days of the mid 2000’s. Sure, my country was mired in two wars, but in some way, things made sense. Days like the year 2005, before social media was big, before fake news. Actually, maybe there never were good old days.
In 2005 the eminent Princeton University philosopher Harry Frankfurt wrote the short book (based on a 1986 essay) called “On Bullsh**” . . . I can’t say the word because this is a family place and, well, I’m a rabbi. The book is called “On ‘Droppings from Male Cattle’”. What Israelis call shtuyot. The book is called “On BS.” That’s as close as I’ll go.
What distinguishes lies from BS is that a liar is trying to trick you. A liar wants others to believe that he or she is telling the truth. But, according to Frankfurt, “For the [BSer], however, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or make them up, to suit his purpose.”
Frankfort: “Bullsh** is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about. Thus the production of [BS] is stimulated whenever a person’s obligations or opportunities to speak about some topic are more excessive than his knowledge of the facts that are relevant to the topic. This discrepancy is common in public life, where people are frequently impelled whether by their own propensities or by the demands of others to speak extensively about matters of which they are to some degree ignorant.”
Huh, do we recognize this in any public figure today? Someone who is too arrogant to say, “I don’t know” or “I could be wrong”, or too lazy to research, or too scared to show weakness.
I’m not going to name names, but we all know that we are living in an age of, let’s say, something more than lies. An age of, what Stephen Colbert called “truthiness”, what the Oxford Dictionary calls “post-truth”, or what Kellyanne Conway calls “alternative facts.”
So, today, I want to talk about truth. Not necessarily truth with a capital T, I don’t want to get too philosophical, but I want to talk about telling the truth and what Judaism stresses with this middah this character trait, of emet. Emet—alef, mem, tav—the first letter, the middle letter, and the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet. It’s as if truth is all encompassing. Truth, as our tradition says, is the signature of God.
I don’t think most of us reach the level of post-truth, or BS, but we all lie sometimes. I know that I’ve been in a situation and everyone is talking about a classic movie that I had not seen, but not wanting to be left out, I said I saw it. Or, of course, I’ve lied to my kids about . . . so many things. Is it to protect them? Well, it’s usually because I don’t want to take the time to explain something to them. Laziness.
Alan Morinis writes, “A student acknowledges that she ‘tells a story’ ‘out of fear of being taken to task, to be seen in a negative light.’ Once she had to miss a board meeting because it conflicted with her husband’s seventieth birthday party. ‘I found myself preparing all kinds of stories that would “protect” me from these fears,’ she said.
“Just as this story reveals, peel back the behavior and you are almost sure to discover that the source of the lie is a fear of one thing or other. We lie because we fear facing someone else’s disappointment, or having disappointment ourselves, or fear of shame, or loss, or any number of other possibilities . . .
“It was not because of her inner awareness, but rather her commitment to tell the truth, that the student hosting her husband’s seventieth birthday party eventually decided not to lie about the situation. What happened next was a revelation: ‘Instead of lightning coming down from heaven, I got congratulations for my husband’s big birthday and a few “your family comes first” remarks. It felt like a bit of my soul was being saved.’”
If we make a practice of telling the truth, even when telling a seemingly harmless white lie is easy, and then when we look inward, we can learn a lot of truth about our fears and other motivations of our behaviors.
Menachem Mendl Lefin: “Lying is the most despicable spiritual illness. At first it stems from the pursuit of permitted pleasure, money, prestige or the esteem of men. It then progresses towards the pursuit of prohibited pleasures. At the end, it becomes an acquired inclination of its own—lying for the sake of lying!”
Louis Jacobs: “Rav Safra was approached to sell something he had and was offered a price which suited him, but he was unable at the time to signify his consent because he was reciting his prayers and was unable to interrupt them. The prospective buyer, under the impression that the rabbi had rejected his bid, kept on increasing the price but the rabbi insisted on selling for the original price to which he had consented “in his heart.” Naturally, this kind of exemplary conduct was not intended for all, otherwise it would not have been recorded for a saintly man like Rav Safra. But the stern injunctions throughout Jewish literature against cheating and dishonesty in business affairs and in other areas of life are directed toward every Jew, as when the prophet says of his people: “They have taught their tongue to speak lies, they weary themselves to commit iniquity”
Forcing ourselves to tell the truth is not the same thing as “speaking our mind,” especially when it might be hurtful to others. We think that people who are overly honest and say what actually pops into their heads are telling the truth, being honest and refreshing, but I think, Jewish thought has a different take. Speech between individuals should not be hurtful. The famous classical example is “The Beautiful Bride.” Our ancient sage Hillel states that all brides should be praised as “beautiful and gracious.” His intellectual sparring partner Shammai asks, “What if a bride limps or is blind, should one praise her as being ‘beautiful and gracious’? Has not the Torah told us, “Keep your distance from falsehood?”’
Morinis: “Hillel tells us that we should not be primarily concerned with how our words correspond to verifiable reality, but rather for the impact our statement will have on another person.”
Tell of radio interview with guy who only told the truth . . .
I just have a very unusual family. They valued honesty to an extreme extent.
Michael’s in his 30s, and he was raised by parents who encouraged him and his siblings to tell everything, the whole truth, all the time, believing that it hurts relationships when we avoid awkward truths, that we all should just man up and talk things through. We should work things out.
And being honest also means being true to who you are, right? Which, obviously, anybody wants for their kids. But hearing how far his family went with this, it makes you really understand how incredibly strange your daily life would be if you were to never withhold the truth. Like, for a long time, Michael believed that if somebody asked him a question– I mean, like, any question at all– he had to answer it honestly.
This is funny because in job interviews, people would ask me what my biggest flaw was. And I would go into a long rant about all my flaws and all the negative things anyone’s ever said about me. And people would look at me– I got used to this expression of horror. And sometimes it was kind of comic. People would laugh. Like, wow, you thought you had to actually answer that? You’re clearly supposed–
That’s amazing. That’s really amazing. Yeah, you are the only person in the history of job interviews to have ever done that.
Not the only person.
That’s true. His brother Josh does the same thing. More on that later. Let’s stay with Michael for now.
- One time, I went on a date when I was in college. And I went on this date. And I spent the whole date explaining why she should want to be with me– you know, what was great about me– and also why other people didn’t want to be with me. I’m saying all the bad things that ever happened to me, why I was rejected by the world.
Now, that was just being honest. I was just telling her all the information necessary, in my mind, to decide whether to be with me. I thought it was my responsibility as a person on a date to explain everything they were dealing with from the first moment of the date so that they could make an informed decision about how to move forward.
That’s what I love about this story, is that you thought you were doing a good job. You thought you were acing the date.
I learned a real truth related to this from a politician . . . really. I had the opportunity not long ago to meet a prominent Canadian Muslim politician in an intimate setting in someone’s home. We were talking about many social issues, and someone brought up the claim that free speech was being restricted because of “political correctness.” He said something like, “If by ‘political correctness’ you mean not being allowed to say offensive things because you will be ostracized, that is a good thing.” He explained that we should be allowed to criticize things in society with well-reasoned arguments and talk about things that are difficult—for him this might mean Muslim integration into society. But, here was his real truth, he said, “If the older generation feels something distasteful or hateful but doesn’t say it because of ‘political correctness,’ that is great because the next generation will not even feel it if they don’t hear it.” Meaning: words matter. It might be someone’s truth that “Muslims are terrorists” or “Jews are greedy” or what have you, but saying that is not speaking truth (besides the fact that it is verifiably wrong). Our words should not be used to hurt or ostracize. Saying that Mexican immigrants to the US (documented or not) are rapists, drug dealers, and bad hombres has nothing to do with political correctness or truth.
So, we have to practice honesty in speech, but not saying things that are hurtful. But, in Jewish law, there are times when it is permissible so say white lies. Louis Jacobs: “. . . for instance, where the intention is to promote peace and harmony [Babylonian] Talmud (Bava Metzia 23b-24a) observes that a scholar will never tell a lie except in three instances of “tractate,” purya, and “hospitality.” The commentators explain “tractate” to mean that a modest scholar is allowed to declare that he is unfamiliar with a tractate of the Mishnah in order not to parade his learning. Rashi translates purya as “bed” and understands it to mean that if a scholar is asked intimate questions regarding his marital life he need not answer truthfully. The Tosafot [authorities of a certain later school, commenting on Rashi’s comments] find it hard to believe that such questions would be addressed to the scholar or anyone else and they understand purya to be connected with the festival of Purim. If the scholar is asked whether he was drunk on Purim, he is allowed to tell a lie about it. “Hospitality” is understood to mean that a man who has been treated generously by his host may decide not to tell the truth about his reception if he fears that as a result the host will be embarrassed by unwelcome guests.”
We can only “lie” to practice humility and to protect the modesty of a loved one and maybe to protect someone’s financial situation if too many guests will really put him out. That’s it.
Morinis: “A story is told about Rabbi Israel Salanter that . . . reveals the inner process that a master of truth goes through in ‘executing the judgement of truth’ that is our guideline and goal.
“Rabbi Salanter gave a regular Talmudic discourse. One day, a student asked a very sharp question that seemed to undermine the entire argument Rabbi Salanter was making. He paused for a moment, then he conceded the point and stepped down from the dais.
“Later he told his student about what he had thought in the moment before he stepped down. In that instant at least five acceptable answers came into his mind to refute the question. Even though he could see that they were not ultimately true, he knew it was unlikely that anyone in the audience would see through them as he could. He was tempted to try them, even for positive reasons: his admission of failure might cause the Torah he represented to lose honor, and he himself might lose face, and that might negatively impact his ability to affect people positively.
“After these thoughts, he chastised himself. ‘You study Mussar!’ he said to himself. ‘Admit the truth.’ And he stepped down.
“In the end, he explained, it was in serving the needs of his soul and the souls of others that he had to be truthful. Though difficult, this is the guideline we too must follow . . . Truth is . . . an exercise, a judgment, and a test. The goal is to live truth according to the guidance of your discerning heart, for the sake of your soul you are as well as the souls of others.”
Let’s go back to the beginning. When our leaders keep telling the same lies, the same droppings of male cattle, they are probably hurting their souls, but they are definitely hurting ours. The more we hear something, the more we are resigned to it, or the more we doubt what we know to be true. Yael Melamede writes, “In a recent study [by Dan Ariely] researchers took brain scans during the course of an experiment in which people lied repeatedly and they found that the brain reacts less severely to lies over time.” This is not good for democracy. This is not good for relationships. This is a desecration of the signature of God.
The more we tell the truth, not offensive words, with modesty and humility, the more our relationships flourish and hopefully society. As Shmuel HaNagid writes:
Delay your speech
if you want your words
to be straight and free of deceit—
as a master archer
is slow to take aim
when splitting a grain of wheat.
Oh God of Truth, whose signature is Truth, we know that we cannot know the all of Truth, but help us this year to know in our hearts the ways of truth and to speak truthfully and act responsibly.