Reason and truth represent the essential ingredients for preserving social stability and ensuring continuity, yet today these principles are under attack. In some measure, the celebration of “truth” and an appreciation for “reason” appears to be passing from the contemporary scene.
When we dismiss or marginalize truth, we permit in its vacuum chaos and invite in its stead the invention of scenarios that serve to enhance a problematic reading of history. Facts affirm events and provide an accounting of what has transpired. Revisionism distorts who we are and what we represent. In such a setting we see the truth no longer as a given but rather as a negotiated outcome.
Historically, democracies held to Plato’s notion that there are truths to be discovered and for knowledge to be affirmed.
When Truth is Unclear, Mismanaged or Created:
Uncovering “the truth” can be messy and even complicated. Yet, as we know, how truth is seen and interpreted defines its meaning and intention. The path is not always direct or even clear.
What happens when an individual or political state seeks to either misrepresent facts or invent “truth”. Something we are just experiencing within American politics. Or in the case of Nazi Germany, we have witnessed a leader that rejected truths in order to create his own set of realities? Hitler sought to frame his case against the Jews by such historic and cultural misrepresentations.
Beyond the Obvious:
In some settings, the facts are themselves confusing, contradictory and confining. How do we untwist complexity? Contenders compete to demonstrate their knowledge and understanding of truth. Can there be then multiple sets of “truths”?
Society as a whole, but minorities, in particular, are dependent on a complete accounting of what happened and what is unfolding. In rejecting the right of the State of Israel to exist or in distorting, for example, the historical accounts of the Holocaust, the legitimacy of who Jews are and what they represent is correspondingly dismissed, minimized or misrepresented.
At times we note that truth is simply ignored, and in its place, an alternative “set of facts” is constructed and supported. Truth must be seen as sacred, essential for a people’s understanding of their history. For Jews, these qualities of accounting and verifying the historical record represent the essence of civilization, as facts provide an orderly recording of events, reflecting the character and integrity of leadership, and serving to create a social construct of how people manage a crisis, deal with change, and promote and support their values.
Judaism is the search for truth and represents an assertion of how we are to see ourselves in history. The Hebrew word for truth, emet is formed from the first letter of the alphabet, alef, the middle letter, mem, and the final letter, tav. The God of truth is found wherever there is truth and His absence is felt wherever there is falsehood.
Rabban Shimon Ben Gamliel said, “The world is sustained by three things, by justice, by truth, and by peace. As it is stated, speak every man the truth to his neighbor; execute the judgement of truth and peace in your gates.”
This triumph of truth implies a full and complete acknowledgment of our failings and weaknesses, just as it asserts our successes and achievements. Heschel empowered us, noting that we were to be “God’s stake in history”. He writes:
“We own the past and are, hence, not afraid of what it is to be. …We are endowed with the consciousness of being involved in a history… The gravest sin for a Jew is to forget what he represents.”
Historical accountability for Jews is a component of what we represent in the world! We cannot escape the place and meaning of truth as being part of our narrative.
In this Environment:
A “pandemic malaise” defines this moment in time. The virus with all of its uncertainties has given space to the rise of historical revisionism and an environment of falsehoods about the very presence of the disease, its treatment or the value of the vaccine. The “who is to blame” refrain can and does at times overwhelm the reasoned inquiry of “how shall we respond?”
Within our current American national psyche, there has been a willingness, whether out of anger or fear, to accept an alternative truth as a way to manage and comprehend our medical challenges. Similarly, we are encountering a type of political theatre in the aftermath of the November elections, where the results are not only being rejected but in its place, a completely different scenario has been constructed creating an alternative false outcome.
Correspondingly, with economic instability, we are monitoring the presence of conspiratorial messages with its assigned angry accusations and faulty conclusions. When such behaviors cancel truth and dismiss reason, I fear that our democracy and society itself are being undermined, even challenged.
But these conspiratorial notions are threatening and challenging to this country’s democratic moorings. When falsehoods and conspiracy replace reality and undermine truths, we often find that minorities become particularly vulnerable. And indeed, many of these “alternative tales” carry with them anti-Semitic overtones, and unless these untruths are checked, the American Jewish story itself will come undone. Jews thrive in a culture of reason and an environment of openness.
In this society Jews have emerged as high profile actors in representing and interpreting American culture, politics, and media. When they are no longer seen as mere conveyors of information and ideas but become themselves targets of rebuke and labeling, their status and safety suddenly are being threatened. When their very presence becomes the storyline, their fate is brought into question.
Where the will of the mob overrides reality and when the public square embraces false scenarios over facts, chaos and controversy replace order and reason. Extremism, whether formed on the right or promoted from within the left, contributes to the uncoupling of the democratic tradition. The chilling effect of when we experience the rewriting of history or the misrepresentation of truth leads to the undermining of core beliefs associated with democracy, pluralism, and political consensus.
The American experiment is in trouble. This has profound implications for our community, its wellbeing and its future!
 Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Earth is the Lord’s (New York: Meridian Books and the Jewish Publication Society, 1963), pages 108-109