Lies and Damned Lies — Exodus 23:7

Midvar sheker tirchak — “From a lying word stay far away.” In 2016, Republican Majority Leader Senator Mitch McConnell laid down the following “principle” in support of his decision not to allow the Senate to vote on President Obama’s Supreme Court nomination of Judge Merrick Garland almost eight months before the next presidential election and 10 months before his term ended: “The American people are perfectly capable of having their say on this issue, so let’s give them a voice. Let’s let the American people decide.” That principle was a lie, and his pushing through President Trump’s nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to replace Justice Ginsburg 38 days before the next election and four months before that president’s current term will end is hypocritical.

Midvar sheker tirchak — “Keep yourself far from a false matter.” In 2016, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham not only echoed McConnell’s principle but added, “I want you to use my words against me.” And if that weren’t clear enough, in 2018, after the Kavanaugh confirmation hearing had concluded, Graham said: “If an opening comes in the last year of President Trump’s term, and the primary process has started, we’ll wait to the next election.” That was a lie, and his support of voting on President Trump’s nomination of Judge Barrett to replace Justice Ginsburg is hypocritical.

Midvar sheker tirchak — “Keep thyself far from a false statement.” In 2016, Republican Senators Cruz, Rubio, Perdue, Grassley, Tillis, Barrasso, Burr, Blunt, Gardener, Portman, Johnson, and others all made statements similar to those of McConnell and Graham. Those statements were lies, and their support of voting on President Trump’s nomination of Judge Barrett to replace Justice Ginsburg is hypocritical.

Using Graham’s words against him, as he asked, and, as I’ll add, against the others, I charge all these United States senators with lying then, lying now, and being hypocrites of the first order. (Not surprising, considering who the head of their party is and at whose feet they grovel.) They’re a disgrace to their office, to their oath, and to their country. Their actions are a blemish that will not be easily, or quickly, erased. And from a human perspective, I don’t understand how they’re able to look their children or grandchildren in the eye when they talk to them, as parents and grandparents do, about honesty and the evil of lying.

I have more to say, a lot more, but since I’m talking about the highest court of the land, I’ll use some of the skills I learned as a litigator and continue this column in a Q&A format.

Q: Lying? Hypocrisy? Don’t people have the right to change their minds?

A: Absolutely. Indeed, it’s not rare for wise people to do so after they’ve carefully rethought an issue or are given new data. Personally, I wish I would do it more often. So if that were truly what the Republicans did, I’d have to rewrite this column — or just hit the delete button.

But that’s not what they did. No Republican said he or she changed their principle from the one they acted on in 2016; not a single one said their actions were wrong. Rather, they are acting in complete disregard of the principle they pontificated about, and acted on, back in 2016, while struggling to raise one ostensibly different fact or allegedly changed circumstance after another that supposedly justifies their contradictory actions.

But all those justifications — read rationalizations — are mere verbiage, which boil down to the simple fact that they (mis)used their majority power then by denying a nominee a hearing and a vote (which, of course, could have been “no”), and are (mis)using it again now by rushing a hastily considered nomination through for electoral, rather than judicial, purposes. And all this was done for their benefit and to the detriment of the minority (which also has rights in a democracy) — truth, fairness, and consistency be damned.

Q: What about the Democrats? They wanted a vote on Garland in 2016 and now they’re against a vote on Barrett. Aren’t they just as bad?

A: I’m a lifelong Democrat and I know very well that the Democrats are far from perfect. Very far. Indeed, Democrats and Republicans alike share much of the blame for the current incivility, dysfunction, gridlock, and vulgarity in our political processes.

Nonetheless, in this particular instance, the Democrats have acted, and are acting, properly. They never refused a Supreme Court nominee a hearing in an election year (or ever, in my memory) and are not doing so now. Rather, the issue at hand, as referred to earlier, is consistency and fairness. President Obama said it best: “A basic principle of the law — and of everyday fairness — is that we apply rules with consistency, and not based on what’s convenient or advantageous in the moment. The rule of law, the legitimacy of our courts, the fundamental workings of our democracy all depend on that basic principle. As votes are already being cast in this election, Republican senators are now called to apply that standard.”

Q: OK. I get it. But aren’t you simply banging your head against the wall? Do you really think you’ll change anybody’s mind?

A: Banging is right, and Aleve helps only a little bit. And, no, while the optimist in me would like to think I can change at least a few minds, the realist in me is much less sure.

Q: So why are you writing this?

A: Because that’s what I do in these columns; I discuss issues I care about and believe in, often passionately. I write about what I think is important, and, as the biblical text I quoted at the beginning of this column teaches us, truth is an important Torah value and an essential human one. Truth, and especially truth in government, matters profoundly. So this topic meets my criteria for a column.

Moreover, as someone who practiced law for 46 years and cares deeply about law and the courts, I believe truth is especially critical in connection with the judicial branch of our government. The highest court of that branch, the Supreme Court — the makeup of which lies at the heart of the uproar surrounding the Barrett nomination and the Republican lies and hypocrisy — sits in a magnificent building adorned with two mottos: “Equal Justice Under Law,” and “Justice, the Guardian of Liberty.” How can I — indeed, how can we — not be concerned, indeed outraged, when our most senior government representatives taint the almost sacred concepts of justice, law, and liberty with outright falsehood?

I’ve written a number of times in the past about my regular habit of reading a sermon every Shabbat by the late Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, obm. So I turned to his sermons to see if he addressed the biblical verse I’m using as my underlying text — midvar sheker tirchak. Not surprisingly he did, in a sermon he preached at the Jewish Center in Manhattan on February 16, 1974. His words ring so true today.

(Important parenthetical note. I don’t know, of course, what R. Lamm would say about the Barrett nomination and the Republicans’ actions. I use his words and ideas because they are, as they almost always were, articulate, thoughtful, learned, and inspiring — and they therefore deeply resonated with me. But I am the one applying them here, not he. So please understand that if you disagree with anything, or everything, in this column, you’re disagreeing with me and not with R. Lamm.)

He first noted that “there is only one definition of God,” and it is not love or pity. The definition, he told his congregants, “as formulated by the prophet Jeremiah and introduced in our daily prayers, is Hashem Elokeichem emet, ‘the Lord your God is Truth.’” Indeed, although R. Lamm did not mention this, the midrash teaches that chotamo shel Ha-Kadosh Baruch Hu emet — the seal of God is truth. (Shir ha-Shirim Rabbah 1:9.)

Rabbi Lamm, with his immense erudition and broad knowledge, then wove his sermon around quotes from the Talmud; the founder of Chabad chasidism, Rav Shneur Zalman; the Zohar; Alexander Solzhenitsyn; the midrash; R. Akiva; the Ba’al Shem Tov; the Hebrew writer Yohanan Twersky; the Mishna; Yiddish sayings; the great chasidic leader the Radomsker Rebbe, and Shalom Aleichem, all on the importance of speaking the truth and the need to stay away from falsehood.

Q: I get that. But aren’t you writing about politics, not Jewish theology? What does a Shabbat sermon, even a great one, have to do with Senate votes?

A: Two points. First, while R. Lamm was speaking to his congregation on Shabbat morning, he applied this sermon, in part, to political matters including Watergate and international affairs. Again, while I don’t know what he would have said about the particular issue before us, the breadth of his, and the Torah’s, concern for truth goes far beyond the Jewish community and its affairs.

And second, since Justice Ginsburg’s death and the explosion of the issue of her replacement, I’ve read numerous posts and comments regarding that issue on social media by members of my community — observant Jews, religious Jews, Orthodox Jewish thinkers and teachers, people who usually take biblical injunctions and rabbinic teachings seriously — to the effect that it’s only politics; that’s the way they do business in Washington; they all do it; what’s the big deal. And it was in response to these arguments (if you can call them that), that R. Lamm’s words spoke to me most forcefully.

In discussing the unusual language in the biblical text — dvar sheker (“word of falsehood” rather than “falsehood”) and tirchak (“keep far away from” rather than simply “do not tell” falsehoods) — R. Lamm preached:
“The Sages understood this verse as directed primarily (although not exclusively) at judges [resulting in the following rules]: A judge must not be defensive; if he makes a mistake he must admit it and not rationalize….

“Keep thyself far away from a dvar sheker, from a dishonest euphemism, from a substitute word for a lie which would make the sheker more acceptable…. If you recognize something as false, call it false! Do not misname it as, for instance: an ‘inaccuracy’; an ‘exaggeration’; a ‘hyperbolic extravagance’; or … ‘a terminological inexactitude….’”

And then, after referring to Watergate, he noted with his typical dry humor: “One can imagine a new English translation of the Torah, according to the Authorized Version of [Nixon’s press secretary]: ‘Keep thyself far from an inoperative statement.’”

So no, it’s not just politics or the way they do business in Washington. Judges — here lawmakers — must not rationalize falsehoods. Falsehoods are falsehoods and, as Exodus and R. Lamm teach, all, including — perhaps especially — senators, must stay far away from them.

And all those who use the Torah as a moral guide, who have incorporated biblical, ethical, and human values into their lives and deeds, should therefore drop their “it’s only politics” cynicism and call the Republicans’ statements by their real name — sheker, falsehood — without rationalization, misnaming, or euphemisms. And they would also do well to take heed from R. Lamm’s closing words:

“Elijah and the Messiah will come not so much for political or national reasons, as for the great moral reason: to dissipate and disperse the power of falsehood, to rob it of its strength and its attractiveness; and to bring close emet [truth], to make it reign supreme in the life of mankind.

“A sublime goal, worth waiting for and working for.”

Q: Well, you got that off your chest. Feel better now?

A: [Sigh] No. Not until there’s honest leadership in the Senate and a new president in the White House. Or until the Messiah comes. Amen.

About the Author
Joseph C. Kaplan, a regular columnist for the Jewish Standard, is a long-time resident of Teaneck. His work has also appeared in various publications including Sh’ma magazine, The New York Jewish Week, The Baltimore Jewish Times, and, as letters to the editor, The New York Times.
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