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Fact, Truth, & Lies; Yom Kippur Morning Sermon

09/16/2021 11:57:24 AM


Rabbi Samuel Gordon

Rabbi Sam Gordon Headshot

In my teaching, I’ve often tried to navigate the distinction between fact and truth. Often, particularly in teaching Torah, someone will ask me: Did it happen? Is it true? Did this person live? Was there an Abraham? Were we in Egypt? Was there a Moses? Was there a David? Did it happen that way?

The answer is never so easy. I have understood the distinction between fact and truth. The best example I offer is that of George Washington. George Washington did not cut down the cherry tree. I hate to tell you that. I don't want to disabuse you of your fantasies, but there is no factual basis that George Washington cut down a cherry tree. But the story is truth. It's truth because it teaches us our values very quickly in a little story. it defines who we think George Washington was and why he was important. Truth at times can be more important than fact.  

Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, wrote a very important, very small book: Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory. He taught that the facts of history are often less significant than how well we remember and how we tell the narrative, how we absorb and integrate the story into our lives. That's what is important about Egypt. It's not important whether all the Hebrews were in Egypt or whether any of them were there. What matters is that it is our story; it is our narrative: it is our truth that we were slaves in the land of Egypt and therefore we are supposed to know what it feels like to be a slave, a stranger, an outcast. It teaches us the truth of our values.

Now today we are in a time when the distinction is not between fact and truth, but between fact and lie, and truths and lies-- how some people see facts and they take away from those facts not truth, but a lie. I am very worried about our nation and our future. There are forces in our country who are promulgating lies and convincing others that those lies are truths, that the facts are wrong.

Just this past Saturday, we observed the 20th anniversary of 9/11. I know that there are various disputes and doubts, new classified information that comes out and changes our perceptions at certain times, but there are absolute truths and absolute facts, and there are lies. There were no Arabs on the rooftops of Jersey City celebrating 9/11. There were no early morning phone calls to the Jews working in those towers telling them to stay home that day. But some believe that. Conspiracy theories, paranoid ravings, and demonizations of other groups are a form of manipulation based on those fears and prejudices. And demagoguery uses those lies for its own purpose. All immigrants are not rapists and criminals. Islam is not a teaching of hatred or holy war. All Muslims are not terrorists.

There are those who exploit false narratives for their own political power. Do you remember the term that Kellyanne Conway created, “alternative facts?” Sean Spicer continued that, and it was in response to a claim that the Trump inauguration was the largest attendance in U.S. presidential history. Now there's photographic evidence that that simply is not a fact, and we could dismiss those statements as merely the unimportant ravings of a fragile ego. In that case, it really didn't matter, except it set up a pattern of lies and untruths.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said: “You may be entitled to your own opinions, but you're not entitled to your own facts.”

And yet, we are now confronting the serious consequences of the denial of fact, when lies become a group's truth. There's a long history of the manipulation of truth. In post-Civil War America, there was the narrative of the Lost Cause; that the South really didn't lose the Civil War; that the Civil War wasn't really about slavery; that Robert E Lee was a brilliant general who was not guilty of treason. That lie was repeated about Robert E Lee just last week; that somehow he was a healing force during Reconstruction. Nothing could be further from the truth.

It is as if these people believe that 'Gone With The Wind' was a work of nonfiction. And those lies have consequences. Those lies led to Jim Crow, anti-civil rights legislation, to the denial of basic constitutional freedoms to African Americans. It's not only here that this can take place. In Germany after World War I, there was the “stab in the back” narrative. There was the belief that the German Army did not lose World War I on the battlefield but was instead betrayed by the civilians on the home front, especially by Jews, as well as socialists and other liberal politicians. This cognitive dissonance produced the “repressed defeat” idea; the denial of the German military debacle that in fact happened in World War I. And it became an antisemitic conspiracy theory that helped lead to the rise of Nazism.

Conspiracy theories are attractive and seductive. They offer easy explanations for complicated economic and political forces. But conspiratorial lies can have serious consequences, and Jews have never done well in conspiratorial stories.

In the 1930s and 40s, in the midst of the Great Depression, Henry Ford published the Czarist forgery, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which said that the world was controlled by the Rothschilds and by other Jewish bankers and leaders. And when you hear that George Soros today is the puppet master behind caravans of immigrants invading America on our southern border, you hear the same echoes of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

It is part of the conspiratorial view of the “Grand Replacement Theory,” that white society is being replaced by immigrants, by people of color, and by others who include Jews, who are the ones pulling the strings. And again, those lies have consequences. That was the rallying cry of Charlottesville: “Jews will not replace us!” It was the motivation for the massacre in Pittsburgh at the Tree of Life synagogue. And we are living in a time and in a culture of the rapid growth of these conspiracy theories leading to the Big Lie.

The election in November was won by President Joe Biden. There is no lie in that. That is fact, and it is truth. But the Big Lie led to the January 6th insurrection, the attempted coup in Washington, and, even now, there are those who believe that those who were arrested are martyrs or political prisoners, or somehow liberators because they all bought into the lie.

Thankfully, there are those who are beginning to push back, to stand up against those current lies. Last Saturday, at Shansville, Pa, former President George W Bush clearly called out domestic terrorism and particularly referenced January 6th. And yet he was personally attacked at the deepest level because he told the truth about domestic terror.

There are, as I said, consequences to those lies, and that culture of untruth, of lies, has now morphed into this anti-vaccine movement, the denial of the truth of the pandemic in which we are living; the doubting of medicine and science; the demonization of Dr. Fauci; the belief that somehow we have microchips that are being put into us because of the vaccines. No one needs to insert microchips into us. Certainly, Bill Gates does not need to insert microchips in us. We all carry them around in our Smartphones. (I say that facetiously.)

But those lies are killing us. Those lies are keeping our children out of school and they are separating us from our loved ones. What happens in a nation where there is no trust, where there is falsehood, where truth has become a lie?

There's a Midrash. “Truth” in Hebrew is emet, 3 letters, aleph, mem, tav-- the first letter, the last letter and the middle letter, Alpha, Omega and then the middle letter, to be all-inclusive, all-encompassing. There is the 16th-century legend of the Golem of Prague, created by Rabbi Judah Löw of Prague, the Maharal. In the legend of the golem, Rabbi Judah Löw wrote on the golem’s forehead emet, truth. That's what animated the golem, the Frankenstein Monster if you will, and it created this living being out of clay. But as in 'The Sorcerer's Apprentice' or Frankenstein, Rabbi Löw lost control of this being that he created, and so the golem became destructive. Rabbi Löw had to put him back to sleep and take away his life, so in that three-letter word emet, he erased the aleph, and he was left with two letters, mem tav -- death.

Truth is vital; without it, we die. There is a golem released in our nation and somehow it must be defeated. It is not an easy task, and I offer no easy answers, but we must understand it as a monster that must be caged and tamed, whether it takes electoral response, the rejection of lies, perhaps a realignment of a coalition based on truth, breaking down the polarization and the demonization that is so destructive in our nation. There has to be a demand for civility, for honesty, and for truth, whether we look to political leaders, to our corporate leaders, to our community leaders, our courts, our military, the civilian leadership, and community.

There are no quick fixes, but it is vital that we act, for we cannot endure when truth becomes lies. Let us pray for a renewal, a sense of loyalty to truth, a sense of commitment to our deepest values, a shared commitment to equality and justice and peace. In the Book of Jeremiah, God speaks to the people living in exile in Babylon, and says, “Seek the well-being of the city to which I have sent you in exile, for in its well-being you will prosper.”

We have to be committed to the nation in which we live. The stakes are far too high. We must return to a commitment of truth. May this be a year of healing and well-being and promise.


Wed, November 29 2023 16 Kislev 5784