An excellent barometer for measuring the mark of a society is the word of the year. In 2016, post-truth was chosen as the Oxford Dictionaries’ Word of the Year due to its prevalence in the context of that year’s Brexit referendum and media coverage of the US presidential election. It was not unexpected, perhaps the only surprise was that it was so long in coming.
The challenges to truth and integrity are not in fact new. From time immemorial there were those that have undermined authority and legislation and attempted and often succeeded in a gradual erosion of trust between the law and its citizens. In the Garden of Eden, it was the snake that persuaded Adam and Eve to eat from the tree of knowledge. Never were there humans that had greater clarity of vision as to Good and Evil. Yet the snake ensnared them by using cynicism to undermine the very G-d that had just created and place them there.
Cynicism can trace its origins to Greek thought. For them, life, nature, and the universe are governed by inexorable laws that are fundamentally indifferent to our existence. We are born, we live, and we die. Cynics withdrew from societal life and norms, believing that human conventions tainted and corrupted their lives. The cynic is inclined to disbelieve in human sincerity, in virtue, or in altruism they have no faith in humanity seeing only self-interest as motivating human behavior. Today cynics refuse to believe or accept the conventional wisdom or beliefs of society, the cynic will pour scorn on the virtues of possibilities and possible societal advancement preferring to live with worse case scenario rather than live with hope and belief.
It is this very issue of cynicism that seems to take centre stage at the beginning of Parashat Toldot. The very first verse states “And these are the generations of Isaac the son of Abraham, Abraham gave birth to Isaac”. The commentator Rashi, in explaining the repetitive nature of the verse, refers to the fact that Isaac looked exactly like Abraham. This was to dispel any rumours from the scoffers of the generation that Isaac had been born from Avimelech. If anything, this explanation seems to raise more questions than it answers.
The Beit Halevi suggests, Abraham and Sarah had as a couple the most impeccable reputation and name. They were known to be pillars of morality and integrity. There were two factors that from the outset clearly indicated that such rumours were baseless. Firstly, Abraham had fathered a child already, it was Sarah that was barren, it was seen as farfetched to suggest that if a barren woman couldn’t conceive with a righteous man such as Abraham, that G-d would perform a miracle enabling her to conceive with the evil Avimelech. Secondly, society at the time witnessed first-hand Avimelech suffering Divine punishment as a direct consequence of abducting Sarah. There was, therefore, no serious suggestion at the time of any basis to the scoffer’s spurious accusations and rumours. Why did G-d therefore feel it necessary to perform this wonder of making Isaac have the identical appearance to Abraham? The Beit Halevi suggests that cynicism does not necessarily take root immediately. What it does do, is to sow the seeds for future dissent. It is like a cancerous growth. It was for this reason that it was critical that Sarah’s actions should be seen to be beyond reproach with no aspersions cast on her offspring Isaac, to ensure that at any given point in the future there could never be questions raised with regards the progeny of the Jewish people.
The real dangers posed by cynicism, was experienced in Britain, by the discredited historian and holocaust denier David Irving. Some sixteen years after an English court discredited his work and the judge called him “anti-Semitic and racist”, the historian David Irving claimed he was inspiring a new generation of “Holocaust sceptics”.
For many, the pandemic has been one of the greatest ordeals they have faced and had to struggle with, in their lives. The recent news of a vaccine having been found, and preliminary testing showing positive results, has bolstered the hopes and beliefs of society. Yet, no sooner had the positive news been announced, it was quickly undermined by a vocal minority that have attempted to dissuade people from being vaccinated. The basis for their objections on social media, was not on scientific grounds but it was fuelled by cynicism. Rather than a wait and see policy, they have chosen to attempt to scupper the vaccine standing any chance of success before it has even been given the green light. Ultimately, like previous vaccines, the safety of the vaccine will be decided by the scientists on whose advice government will act. The danger of course, in the social media world in which we live, is that rather than governments determining the way forward, the ease at which misinformation can be bandied about, may enable the cynics of our generation to determine policy and prevent any attempts at progress.
The post truth era has given added weight to the voice of the cynic, as they raise concerns and cast accusations with little or no due diligence. To be held ransom by a small minority, risks us missing the opportunity to advance society in all realms.
As Jews we are blessed to be able to look to Abraham, the founding father of monotheism and the very first Jew, for inspiration. He led by example, in having the courage and faith to constantly move forwards despite the cynical remarks from the bystanders that attempted to hold him back and prevent change. Our constant striving to live lives of integrity and truth can eventually collectively erode the cynicism and falsehood ushering in a new era where the word of the year in the future will be Post-Cynicism.