William Hamilton

When Non-Fiction Meets Make-Believe

Imagine that you find yourself in seat 19B on a three-hour flight.  The person seated next to you begins to talk about a subject of which you know very little.  He seems well informed and articulate.  Before long, you begin to consider ‘Perhaps he knows what he’s talking about.’ This causes you to wonder, ‘perhaps vaccinations do cause autism’; ‘perhaps there was no Temple in Jerusalem’; ‘perhaps there were no gas chambers in Auschwitz’.

To challenge our vulnerability to this alarming assault on truth and historical facts, historian Deborah Lipstadt supported the making of an important new film. Denial brilliantly depicts the Libel case brought against her back in 2000 by the notorious British Holocaust-denier David Irving.  The film’s lessons could not be more timely.

Our Festival’s biblical scroll, Ecclesiastes, adroitly demonstrates the importance of knowing one’s aim and audience.  The first eleven chapters of the Book bring uncommon biblical candor the disappointments that can make life seem futile.  With the final chapter, however, the author’s audience shifts from his own aged cynicism to his youthful readers.  Plan well, but celebrate in the present.  And as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks indicates in his wise new Sukkot Prayer Book, we will find more meaning by tethering ourselves to the Divine that surpasses everything that is found under the sun.

Lipstadt’s Denial get’s both aim and audience just right.  Rather than focus on the societal forces that have made Holocaust denial possible, her attorneys bring laser focus to Irving’s hateful core.  Rather than put truth on trial, they reveal Irving’s willfully malicious method.  There is a time and a place for addressing societal forces and systemic problems.  But when followers are collecting around those who are emboldening vulgarity and violence, it is time to make the path of the wicked less smooth and more crooked.

To be candid is not necessarily to be honest.  Candor expresses what a person believes.  Truth and facts then visit to assess whether such beliefs are make-believe.  Fact-checkers have been working overtime throughout this excruciatingly long Election season.  Deeply worrisome is how few voters seem to care.

This fall as we yearn for something new under the sun, the motion picture Denial is joined by  Daniel Gordis’ important new book, Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn. Nimbly attuned to shifting aims and audiences, it blends a self-critical (instead of self-congratulatory) approach with inspiring hope.  It too is an urgent bulwark against those seeking to upend history or trespass against truth. At a time when many champion the meek who speak truth to power, may we embrace works that bring power to truth.

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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