Truth… in its very essence

In the most recent Sunday edition of The New York Times (April 29, 2018), the paper featured, in its “Sunday Review” section, an essay adapted from a forthcoming book by Michael V. Hayden, a former director of the CIA.

In that essay, and in his book, Hayden criticizes the president within the context of a broader development in society, suggesting that we are entering a “post-truth” era, away from the Enlightenment’s grounding in empiricism and fact. In a key sentence, Hayden write that “in a ‘post-truth’ world, facts are less influential than emotion and belief.”

Hayden’s book is titled “The Assault on Intelligence,” and the Times essay was called “The End of Intelligence.” Both titles play on the meaning of the word “intelligence,” implying that there is an assault on both the work of intelligence professionals in government as well as a greater danger in the development of thinking. But moving beyond “intelligence,” the Times was more direct in its illustration, picturing — in full color — a tombstone lying on the grass with the word “TRUTH” inscribed upon its surface.

Is truth dead?

I sat in the audience of a candidate’s forum for the village council in Ridgewood, NJ,  the day after receiving Hayden’s essay, and I was struck by how often candidates turned to their opponents with accusations of distortion or fabrication of supposed facts.

Have we as a society moved to a point where truth itself is a commodity that can be traded or manipulated? When the Talmud teaches us that “truth is the seal of the Holy One,” is that divine attribute beyond our reach, or is it a model and aspiration for us still to strive toward?

We get upset and angry when things are claimed, or even suggested, that we know to be false. Whether it is a family member, a friend, a stranger, or the president of the United States, we are offended when someone makes claims that we believe are untrue. The very institution of justice, the court system, exists in order to resolve questions of truth between people.

In the Jewish tradition, the establishment of the courts is considered one of the essential foundations of civilization, because there must always be a nonviolent avenue to adjudicate disputed claims and seek the truth. For this reason, Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliel declares in Pirkei Avot (1:18) that the three pillars of the world are justice, truth, and peace. And every time the ark is opened in a traditional Sabbath service, the congregation addresses “the God of truth, whose Torah is truth and whose prophets are true and who abounds in deeds of goodness and truth.”

The ingrained nature of our response to untruth, and the many ancient sources that can be cited in our tradition and in other traditions on the primacy of truth, testify against the suggestion from the New York Times and Director Hayden that we suddenly are moving away from a consensus of veracity. We have both a biological and an historically documented aversion to untruth, which proves in turn a truth that we must recognize — that untruth always has been a present menace.

We have all heard comparisons between our current political environment and the period in German history leading up to the Third Reich, comparisons with which I have taken some issue in these pages.

Most recently, former Secretary of State Madeline Albright’s new book, “Fascism: A Warning,” makes explicit the parallels between our contemporary politics and the darker moments of twentieth century Europe. I came across a passage in a 1947 novel by the German author Thomas Mann that screams out to me on this point, and I will cite it here. The context in the novel is German politics in the 1920s, the decade before the Nazi seizure of power, but leading to it: “The masses would have in the future to be provided with mythical fictions, devised like primitive battle-cries, to release and activate political energies … popular myths or rather those proper for the masses would become the vehicle of political action; fables, insane visions, chimeras, which needed to have nothing to do with truth or reason or science in order to be creative, to determine the course of life and history, and thus to prove themselves dynamic realities…. a mocking abyss between truth and power, truth and life, truth and community … the precedence belonged far more to the community; that truth had the community as its goal, and that whoever would share in the community must be prepared to scrap considerable elements of truth and science and line up for the sacrificium intellectus” (Thomas Mann, Doctor Faustus, pp. 366-367).

In the wake of the Second World War, reflecting on the fall of Germany, Mann identified the willingness of the citizens of a republic to sacrifice their intellectual commitment to truth in favor of the “mythical fictions” of a community. This warning from Thomas Mann is no less pertinent to our own day as it is relevant to the German political scene some 90 years ago.

While part of engagement in democracy is constant vigilance and a culture of checks and balances, I remain unconvinced that our politics today are directly comparable to what happened in Germany. The German republic between 1919 and 1933 was significantly new, untested, and lacking in stability. The American republic, on the other hand, is one of the most stable regimes that ever has been known in the history of the world. And yet we ought to be very concerned about a growing sense of “intellectual sacrifice” or the turning away from truth.

The reason why we call upon God as “the God of Truth” when we open the ark is because we set that standard for ourselves. When leaders speak, they must be responsible for the truthfulness of their words. On our currency we find the words “In God we trust.” While many question why our money needs to contain a religious statement, the reason is that we mention God in lieu of an earthly monarch, as in the British tradition. The monarch, or God, is cited because of the credibility that that figure lends. We want to know that we can trust the value of the currency.

That is why “Truth is the seal of the Holy One,” because the commitment to truth establishes credibility. And just as a currency forms a community of commerce, so does the values behind it — the value of truth. A community that values itself above truth, as Mann wrote that pre-Nazi Germany did, is a community that, like the Germany Mann described, is doomed to destruction.

Our rootedness in truth is a cleaving to life and the world around us. We must hold our leaders responsible to it. Our very civilization depends on that.

About the Author
Dr. David J. Fine is the rabbi of Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center in Ridgewood and past president of the North Jersey Board of Rabbis. He holds a doctorate in modern European history and is an adjunct professor of Jewish law at the Abraham Geiger and Zacharias Frankel colleges at the University of Potsdam in Germany.