In the summer of 2005, I made the first of two trips to the fascinating city of Prague in the Czech Republic. That first visit came as a rabbinic chaperone for 600 NFTYites who were setting out on their summer adventure. The journey would take them from several days in the Czech Republic learning about the life of our people in Europe, to Cyprus where we boarded a boat (at 4 am I might add) to set sail for Israel. It’s really about a half-day trip. However, so the NFTYites could learn about the boatloads of refugees who tried, some in vain, to make it to Israel seeking refuge from the ravages of Eastern Europe, we spent three days going in circles in the Mediterranean Sea. Our arrival was greeting by faux-British airplanes and boats seeking to block entry to these “refugees.” (Think “Exodus”) Once in Israel the teens spent the next 4 weeks visiting Israel from top to bottom. I headed for Jerusalem to study. I jumped at the chance to accompany the NFTY groups because it afforded me that first opportunity to see Prague, as well as the Nazi Concentration Camp of Terezin, some 50 miles from the Czech capital.
Prague is a magical place. It is beautiful. Its Jewish Quarter was virtually untouched by the horrors of World War II. We cannot say the same for the city’s Jewish inhabitants, who were deported en masse to Terezin. Yet, Prague’s synagogues, Jewish cemetery, and more were spared destruction. One lingering image of my visit comes from the city’s association with an important 16th century Rabbi by the name of Judah Loew. Rabbi Loew (whose grave is in that old Jewish cemetery), is best known as the popularizer of the legend of the Golem.
The Golem might be viewed as our tradition’s equivalent of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. While the concept of a golem can be traced back to early rabbinic times, it was Rabbi Loew’s telling that brought this figure literarily and symbolically to wider attention. His golem was a sort of superhero, made from a lifeless mass, brought to life, and set on a mission to deliver the Jewish community from difficult and dangerous circumstances. In Rabbi Loew’s formulation of the narrative, the creature is brought to life by inscribing the Hebrew letters Aleph-Mem-Tav on his forehead. These letters form the Hebrew word emet, or truth. Elsewhere, tradition teaches us that “Truth is God’s Signature,” or perhaps God’s ultimate reality. Should the golem become uncontrollable, or a danger to the Jews, it could be deactivated by erasing the letter aleph, simply leaving the word Met or “dead” on its forehead, returning it to being a shapeless mass. On the streets of Prague, and in all of the gift shops, even beyond the Jewish Quarter, one finds little figurines representing the Golem – one of Prague’s claims to fame – in all shapes and sizes. I was bemused by the ever-present totems. I didn’t buy one. But I have to say, the legend has been much on my mind of late.
Well, it’s not really the Golem I have been pondering. Rather it’s the word inscribed on the forehead of this mythic figure that I’ve been thinking, reading and studying about in recent weeks and months. In particular I have been studying Jewish teachings on the value of emet, truth. Emet is one of the middot, or soul-traits of the Mussar literature and practice. Some of you have explored it with me in our mussar groups over the past two years. In these complicated times, I suspect I am not the only one thinking about the meaning of truth.
As I noted last night, when asked to comment about the lessons of her battle against Holocaust-denier David Irving for our cacophonous times, Professor Lipstadt stated: “There is a difference between facts, opinions, and opinions based on lies.” If I were to recast that statement in light of my study of Jewish teachings on emet, I might put it this way: There is a difference between God’s Truth, which we cannot fully know; opinions, which are a part of our God-given capacity to think and articulate how we see the world before our eyes; and lies, which are virtually always destructive for both the liar and those to whom the lies are spoken.
Jewish tradition does countenance what we might call “little white lies” in situations wherein a small lie will do less damage than the clear truth. In the Talmud we read of a famous debate between Rabbis Hillel and Shammai over whether it’s permissible to shade the truth when addressing a bride on her wedding day. Shammai, ever the strict, authoritarian figure teaches one must speak the absolute truth, even if it means harming the feelings of the bride, diminishing her special day. By contrast, Hillel suggests that one must always praise the beauty of a bride on her wedding day. Shading the truth supersedes being completely honest, out of sensitivity to the feelings of the bride. The difference between truth, opinions and opinions based on lies is a powerful theme for our time. I’d like to share three examples of how I believe we can challenge ourselves to see the differences.
On Rosh Hashanah I spoke about my trip in August to Berlin. For about a day and half before the Rabbinic mission began I had the opportunity to explore the city and visit a number of its important sites. I had never been to Germany, save for changing planes on our first Temple Shalom Israel trip in 2004. I was hesitant about visiting a place which for so long had been about as far down on my list of places to see as it could be. Yet, the opportunity to participate in that mission in regard to the Syrian refugees pushed me past my qualms about going to Germany. On my first day, and numerous times in the days that followed I had the opportunity to visit Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. It is a breathtaking site. Beyond the site itself, it was striking to me that the Germans had chosen to name the memorial so honestly. As several guides explained, in naming the memorial as being dedicated to “the murdered Jews of Europe” the nation was owning its past and its transgressions. Rather than attempting to soften the historical reality they are saying, “As a nation, are responsible for the destruction of over 6 million European Jews. We will own that truth.” It was inspiring. While not God’s Truth, Germany’s decision to so name the memorial speaks truth, even as that truth is still painful and challenging to fully comprehend.
Last year, our Newton community was visited by a number of incidents involving hateful graffiti, ugly chants at a high school basketball game, and even more recently, the display of a Confederate flag by some students from Newton North High School. There was a rather vigorous response to these incidents late last Winter and throughout the Spring. There were gatherings for parents at the Day Middle School where the initial graffiti incidents took place, and for the larger community at City Hall in early May. Some saw the incidents as harbingers of a rise in anti-Semitism and other forms of hate speech. Let’s be clear. There is a rise in anti-Semitic incidents and hate crimes in our nation and world today. There has also been a rise in racially-motivated hate crimes.
Back in the Spring there was cacophonous debate over the handling of the incidents in our schools. There are a variety of opinions about how the principal of Day Middle School, School Superintendent, Dr. Fleischman, Mayor Warren and others handled these incidents and their aftermath. The incidents are hurtful and should not be simply swept under the rug. At the same time, there are different views, even among leaders of groups like the Anti-Defamation League, Facing History and Ourselves, the American Jewish Committee and others about how best to address such incidents. Many people were respectful of the varying opinions around our community. At the City Hall gathering, the best responses were those of the students themselves. They conducted themselves with dignity and clear-thinking about how we heal and move past these incidents.
Yet, there were disturbing signs as well. In some responses, at the Day Middle School, at City Hall, and in various media outlets there was evidence of Professor Lipstadt’s third category – facts based on lies. This was not a complete surprise. Our community proved to be a mirror of the larger climate in our nation. Politics always seems to involve some measure of stretching and bending the truth. Yet I wonder, is this worse in our time? Opinions based on lies, “it’s true because I say it’s true” is a part of the zeitgeist of our times. With the spread in recent decades of the internet, social media, Facebook, Twitter, and other forms of digital media, we live in a world wherein truth is all-too-often determined by the ability to broadcast one’s message, irrespective of any basis in fact.
Our current Presidential Election has far-too-often been conducted in this third category. To me, it’s deeply troubling. When I can say one thing today, deny I said it tomorrow, and my denial becomes truth, we are on shaky ground. The movie about Professor Lipstadt is, I believe, aptly titled. “Denial” – of facts, of scientific evidence, of historical realities, of the words I said – whatever, it’s a deeply troubling turn we’ve taken as a society. If this is the “new normal” when it comes to public discourse, how will we teach younger generations to research, to examine history, faith traditions, sociological patterns so long as anyone can proclaim “my statement of my view is no longer simply a matter of opinion. It is “the truth,” and the only truth that matters. How will we ever turn this tide? I have no large-scale answers. But I do believe that in some way the process begins with each of us, starting with ourselves.
On this Day of self-examination, I urge us each to face ourselves as honestly as we possibly can. Let us tear away the masks behind which we sometimes hide. Let us own the truths of our lives, not the prettified version we tell ourselves and others, but rather the honest truth – or as we might say in Yiddish – das emes.
Emet has been a driving value in our tradition since Biblical times. The Psalmist wrote: “God is close to all who call upon God, to all who call upon God in truth. (Ps. 145:18) Our liturgy calls out, “Purify our hearts in truth.” Psalm 15, which is often read as part of the funeral service asks: “Who may ascend Your Holy Mountain? The one who walks uprightly and performs righteousness, and speaks the truth within his heart.” (Ps. 15: 1-2) In a 15th century Mussar text, Orchot Tzaddikim – The Ways of the Righteous, which I have been studying for almost a year on a weekly basis with my study partner, the author elaborates on this passage from Psalm 15. In the chapter on the Soul Trait of Emet he writes, “It is not written, ‘speaks the truth with his mouth.’ The idea is that emet/truth must be implanted and fixed within a person’s heart.” Truth is not just about what we say. It is the honesty with which we face life and all of its messiness, with truth in the depths of our hearts.
Human beings make mistakes. We misspeak. We exercise poor judgment. This day is about facing our shortcomings truthfully. It’s about coming clean – with ourselves, with those around us, and from the vantage point of tradition, with God. If we can pursue truth with honesty, we can reorient ourselves. Having done so, perhaps we strengthen ourselves so as to be capable of heading back out into the world able to face dishonesty with honesty, to fight lies with emet. With it all, we must always recognize, as Moses Maimonides would teach, that we limited human beings are not ultimately capable of seeing, knowing, or even consciously speaking absolute truth. We are only asked to be the best we can, given our human limitations.
The hateful speech and widespread dishonesty in our society deadens us – as individuals and as a nation. Rather than allow the aleph of emet to be erased from our foreheads, allowing ourselves to be turned into lifeless, thoughtless lumps of clay, let us embrace our God-given capacity for rational thought and human expression. Let us pursue truth, with honesty, with openness to divergent opinions and respect for the dignity of the other. Hopefully we can tilt our community, our nation and our world towards wholeness. Rather than allow ourselves to be turned into golems, let us fully embrace our humanity, and pursue emet/truth as we prepare ourselves for a year of learning, living, celebration, deeds of lovingkindness and justice, and let us pray, our world for that wholeness and healing we call shalom!