The U. S. election and halachic ‘truth’

The Shulchan Aruch, Code of Jewish Law, states that if three identical pieces of meat, one which is unkosher and two which are kosher, become mixed together in one container, we are permitted to eat all of them.  We know that one of these pieces is not kosher, and yet as we pull each one out and ask if it is kosher, the answer is “yes”, since when in doubt we go according to the majority (Yoreh Deyah, 109:1).

The purpose of law then is not to determine absolute reality.  Absolute, objective truth, is a miasma, for we see not what is actually before us but our perception of it.  If we are to live together in a society then we need something to guide us other than objective reality, since determining truth is often a subjective enterprise.

Yet we must pursue truth.  The Torah states that a judge must, “stay far away from a thing of falsehood,”  and even so we live our lives according to a system of law which, as we have shown, is not always a reflection of true reality.  Yet, the system in this sense is true. A mikvah or eruv that is measured and is kosher but a week later is found to be unkosher is assumed to retain its status quo until the very moment at which it is found to be lacking.  This is the halachic reality and to be extra religious and not consider it so would be ignorant and wrong, not pious.

In Judaism a system of law is not seen only as a way to avoid anarchy, but as truth even though it might not be what actually happened.    If it were the case that we sought only absolute truth, our hands would be tied, since in the human realm often there is no purely objective vantage point from which to certify the truthful perspective and we would be left  with only differences of opinion.

We are living in a post-modern time when the notion of truth itself is the subject of suspicion, so much so that it threatens to tear apart our country.   I think the mistake we make is assuming that we must be guided by some objective truth or else there is no truth.   In reality, what we have is a system, a system of law, of government, of rules, and this is not untruth, it is truth itself.   Ours is a country in which one can lose the popular vote and win the election, in which hanging chads or wrong signatures can obviate legitimate votes and change the “truth”.   But our goal is not to put our hands around the objective truth, rather it is to have systems of procedure and law which will determine the way in which to move forward, so that we can move together in unity, for this indeed is the motto of the United States: “Out of many, one”.

In the Torah the word emet, “truth,” does not usually refer to “that which happened,” but often describes an object, person or system which is faithful, and reliable.  For instance a “true” tent peg or a “true” horse -these do what is expected of them  and can be relied upon to stand the test of time.   This is biblical truth and this is an apt description of the American democratic system.   Its goal, I would submit, is not to determine what is objectively true, but to be faithful and reliable over the test of time to help us as a nation achieve the goals which the founding fathers of the U. S. set forth, to provide for all of its inhabitants the freedom for life, liberty, equality and the pursuit of happiness, and for us Jews, to remain, with God’s help, a place of peaceful shelter in which to observe our Torah and remain the dedicated Jewish people we are, dedicated to our mission in the world of being a blessing to all of the nations of the world.

About the Author
Rabbi Hyim Shafner, MSW, MA, LCSW, is the Rabbi of Kesher Israel in Washington, D.C. He is a founder of the blog Morethodoxy.org, the author of the Everything Jewish Wedding Book (2008), and a periodic contributor to Conversations: The Journal of Jewish Ideas and Ideals and The Washington Jewish Week. He holds a Certificate in Advanced Psychodynamic Psychotherapy from the St. Louis Psychoanalytic Institute.
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