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Buy Truth and Never Sell It

A Personal Reflection from Rabbi Norman Solomon on Project TABS

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September 16, 2014

Dr. RabbiNorman Solomon

Dr. Rabbi

Norman Solomon

Buy Truth and Never Sell It

אמת קנה ואל תמכר – “Buy truth and never sell it” (Proverbs 23:23)

Rosh Hashana is traditionally a time when Rabbis reflect on grand and elevated matters such as the future of the Jewish people, or the environment or other global challenges. My theme is more modest. I would like to share with TABS readers, as we enter the year 5775, some personal reflections on why I welcomed and encouraged the TABS project and continue to delight in its achievement. Self-indulgent as this may sound, what lies behind it is critical to all the other topics, to teshuva, and indeed to life itself.

Valuing Truth

Why do I like TABS? Because, to me, the pursuit of truth is of overriding concern. I take it as self-evident that truth is preferable to falsehood, but for the benefit of doubters let me back this up with a few proof-texts. Zechariah (8:3) prophesied that Jerusalem would one day will be called the City of Truth.[1] Jeremiah (10:10) said “The Lord God is truth”[2] (which is why we join the third paragraph of the Shema to the word אמת (b. Berakhot 14a)). Rabbi Chanina (b. Shabbat 55a) asserted that truth is God’s signature,[3] and on Rosh Hashana we pray: “Purify our hearts to serve you in truth; for you, O God, are truth, and your word is truth and endures for ever.”[4]

Everyone agrees on the value of truth, but few act consistently in accordance with it; the Psalmist said, in a moment of anger, “All men are liars” (Psalm 116:11).[5] Zoroastrians went even further, setting up Druj (“the Lie”) as the pervasive Enemy, the Source of Evil, to be overthrown by God in the final cataclysm.

Deceit is not unique to our species. Animals engaged in deception long before the humans appeared on the scene, as a strategy in the struggle for survival; disguise, surprise and other tactics are common in the animal kingdom, and some plants have even evolved to mimic other creatures in order to catch prey or to avoid being eaten. But only when humans cultivated complex ways of talking did deceit become a fine art. Ancient philosophers classified human beings as the “talking species”; now we know that animals also talk, if in less sophisticated ways than we do, we might well define humans as “the species that excels at lying”.

Why People Lie

Now, some people tell lies for bad reasons – perhaps they are cheats or adulterers or engaged in other reprehensible activities and are trying to cover up for what they have done. But other people tell lies for what are, or they genuinely think are, good reasons. And indeed there are some good reasons, such as when the value of truth conflicts with some greater value, for instance when you tell a lie to save your own or someone else’s life; generally speaking, there is greater value in saving life than in telling the truth. A discussion in b. Bava Metzia 113a hinges on whether it is permissible to dress as a non-Jew, or even to tell a lie, in order to avoid an unjust, discriminatory tax, for instance one imposed by a gang of robbers. (All agree that taxes imposed by a legitimate government must be paid.) But if you can tell a lie for serious economic considerations, where do you draw the line?

In many walks of life people deviate from truth for professional reasons. Diplomats and politicians head the list, justifying their deviations and contrived ambiguities on the grounds of needs of state, party loyalty and the like, rarely admitting personal ambition. The public relations industry, ‘spin doctors’ included, doesn’t in principle tell lies; their job is rather to mislead with the truth, though the line between favourable presentation and false propaganda is far from clear. Lawyers do their best for their clients, never admitting that they have spoken anything but the truth; and who, for fear of exposing themselves to litigation, would dare challenge them?

Doctors occasionally feel obliged to conceal an unpleasant truth from their patients, which may sometimes be wise and even in the best interest of the patient; more often they lie by offering an assured diagnosis where there is uncertainty, or by recommending treatment on economic grounds rather than in the best interest of the patient. There seems to be no escape from the web of deceit; psychologists tell us that through repression, suppression and denial we conceal the truth not just from others, but from ourselves.

Divine Fibs

Even God gets entangled in the web, which is most disconcerting for the theologian. Bar Kappara claimed that scripture– actually an angel representing God – misquoted Sarah’s words in order to maintain peace between Abraham and Sarah . [6]

Worse still, according to both 1 Kings 22:22-3 and 2 Chronicles 18:21-2, God deliberately sent a ‘spirit’ to lead Ahab astray, while Jeremiah 4:10 accuses God of misleading the people into believing that peace would come. R. Saadia Gaon (Emunot v’Deot 4:6) worried about this and similar verses in the context of freedom and necessity so he classified the verses into eight non-literal forms of speech. “Who will lead Ahab astray?” – which, taken literally, brings up a serious theological problem of God causing Ahab to err—means, in his view, “Who will show that Ahab has strayed?”  Ingenious, but still worrying, and certainly not the original meaning of the text.

The Pressure Rabbis Are Under to Prevaricate  

Religious leaders, such as rabbis (I speak from experience), even though they desire nothing better than to proclaim the truth, come under considerable pressure to prevaricate. To start with, like politicians, if they are to remain in position they need to ensure their own popularity, and this involves flattery, one of the most insidious forms of deceit; commitment to their calling, as well as financial responsibility to their families, reinforces the pressure on them to say and do whatever seems necessary to remain in post.  

The Orthodox rabbi, in particular, is subject to peer pressure and the threat of denunciation as a heretic to conform, in preaching and teaching, to standards set not so much by any professional organisation as by a hidden hierarchy of ‘gedolim’ to whom lesser mortals are held in thrall. Constrained to uphold, in deed and thought, expressions of his religion that may appear to him outdated and discredited, he is caught between the conflicting values of loyalty to his religious ‘establishment’ on the one hand, and devotion to the truth on the other. To survive with integrity is difficult.

Striving to Think and Speak Truthfully

This is precisely why an undertaking such as TABS is so important. TABS’ stated aim is to bring to bear modern historical scholarship on the classical texts of Judaism, especially the Tanakh. This limited objective ought not to be seen as controversial; the evidence is now overwhelming that the biblical accounts of events such as Creation, the Flood and the Exodus cannot be taken literally as histories. The science of archaeology, even with its many gaps and obscurities, enables scholars to place biblical narrative and law into a different perspective from that of the rabbis of the Talmudic period, giving us a clearer perspective not only on the Bible but on what the rabbis were trying to do.

That this has not been welcomed in some Orthodox circles has more to do with drawing lines between Orthodox and Reform, or between Orthodox and Conservative, than with any objective search for truth. But the drawing of lines between communities cannot be allowed to distort the truth, and TABS is strongly to be commended for the attempt to let at least a little light penetrate the darkness.

Truth in Prayer

The ימים נוראים are par excellence a time for prayer – תפלה, and prayer should surely be a forum for total honesty, but is it?

Prayer is nothing if not introspection (להתפלל etymologically means “to judge oneself”).  What matters to me deep down?  What am I really praying for?  One can of course pray spontaneously, but when I pray according to the words of the fixed liturgy, I find there are many prayers with which I can readily identify, but some that seem irrelevant, and others which articulate attitudes or aspirations I reject. I expect that many people, if they are honest with themselves, share this experience.

Yet identifying with the congregation and with the historical experience of the Jewish people means that all – at least, all that is required by the halakha – need be recited. This makes prayer the greatest challenge of all for the seeker after truth. It is a deeply personal challenge that must be met by each worshipper in his/her own way. My own solution is to identify with what I honestly can, and to consider the rest as a stimulus to deep reflection on what evidently meant so much to our forbears who framed the liturgy, extracting where possible some element which remains meaningful in the contemporary world. In this way we can all appreciate and share in the spiritual journey commenced so long ago by our father Abraham.

On behalf of Project TABS / TheTorah.com I wish you and your loved ones a healthy, sweet new year.

!כתיבה וחתימה טובה

Norman Solomon, Oxford, U.K.
September 2014, אלול תשע”ד

Dr. Rabbi Norman Solomon was a Fellow (retired) in Modern Jewish Thought at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies. He remains a member of Wolfson College and the Oxford University Teaching and Research Unit in Hebrew and Jewish Studies. He was ordained at Jews’ College and did his Ph.D. at the University of Manchester. Solomon has served as rabbi to a number of Orthodox Congregations in England and is a Past President of the British Association for Jewish Studies. He is the author of Torah from Heaven

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