Peta Jones Pellach
Teacher and activist in Jerusalem

Alternative Truth

I am struck by how relevant the weekly Torah reading always is for our lives today.

I never fail to find a message and a challenge.

This week, we read the instruction to the judges to “distance yourself from a false matter.” Of course, the readers (and the commentators) ask why the directive – the commandment – is not the more positive instruction to stick to the truth. Elsewhere in the Torah we are told about the importance of truth. The prophets speak about truth. Why are those responsible for upholding the law not told to both be completely truthful and accept only fully truthful testimony?

There is a beautiful midrash which says that when the Creator was considering creating human beings, the angels warned against the idea. After all, they argued, humans would be neither peaceful nor truthful. The Creator broke up the argument by throwing Truth to the earth, where it shattered into pieces. Now, the majority of angels agreed to our creation. Also now, Truth was shattered.

The upshot of the midrash is that on earth, fragments of truth exist. When we search for truth, we can only access pieces. Only in the heavenly realm does complete Truth reside.

So, one reason not to demand full truth from the judges is that they simply do not have access to it. The prophets are speaking of an idea and a vision for the future. In the day-to-day administration of justice and settling of disputes, we may never know the absolute truth so we cannot demand it of judges.

By the same reasoning, each person testifying may very well be telling what they believe to be the truth, even if one contradicts the other. My truth is not always your truth.

This line of argument is difficult and even painful in today’s world. When we have seeming approval to lie – to create our own version of events, to promulgate “fake news” and to announce it as an alternative truth – many of us long for clarity. Surely there is something that is true and real and there are other things that are false. Of course, there is and there are.

We must distance ourselves from what is false, even while acknowledging that we might not have access to complete truth. Elsewhere, the Torah instructs each and every one of us that we must not deal falsely with one another. There is a severe prohibition on intentionally altering weights in the market – on cheating. Not having access to absolute, complete information does not entitle us to lie or to distort what we know to be true – unless it is for a higher cause.

Midrashim tell us of the wisdom and goodness of Moses’ brother, Aharon, who would create peace between people by telling white lies about what one said about the other. He is held up as a model peace-maker. The Talmud explains that it is our duty to tell a bride how beautiful she is, even if, objectively, she is not physically attractive.  (Anyway, says the proverb, physical attractiveness is itself a form of “lie.”) A bride is entitled to her dignity and even to feelings of love.

The value of truth does not override the value of peace and does not override our responsibility to uphold the dignity of the human person. Distancing ourselves from falsehood allows us some flexibility with what we might ultimately proclaim as “truth.”

It is noteworthy that this commandment is given to judges, who were the leaders and decision-makers in the community. Today, it would extend to lawmakers. Once again, this makes us uncomfortable. We do not want to give our leaders permission to bend the truth. We want to feel that they are absolutely truthful.

However, if we read the commandment in its context, we realise that the judge is being instructed on how to adjudicate matters outside himself or herself. (Although the language is masculine, we know that Devorah was a judge, so women, too, are included.)  Judges and leaders, like everyone else, must distance themselves from falsehood. They may not cheat or lie to protect or benefit themselves. They may, however, make decisions for litigants or for the public that take into account different points of view. They may prioritise peace-making over a search for some absolute that will lead to disharmony and a sense of injustice.

I learn important lessons from the subtle use of language in this week’s Torah reading: a judge should judge, and a ruler should rule, with humility, recognizing her inability to know everything; compromise is not weakness but is a way of acknowledging the complexity of truth and our inability to fully apprehend it.

All the slogans calling for unity today would be more effective if we trusted that our leaders understood and applied these Torah principles.

About the Author
A fifth generation Australian, Peta made Aliyah in 2010. She is Senior Fellow of the Kiverstein Institute, Director of Educational Activities for the Elijah Interfaith Institute, secretary of the Jerusalem Rainbow Group for Jewish-Christian Encounter and Dialogue, a co-founder of Praying Together in Jerusalem and a teacher of Torah and Jewish History. She has visited places as exotic as Indonesia and Iceland to participate in and teach inter-religious dialogue. She also broadcasts weekly on SBS radio (Australia) with the latest news from Israel. Her other passions are Scrabble and Israeli folk-dancing.