In light of Brexit, Trump, etc., what can the story of Abraham impart on the position of 'truth' and 'lies' in Jewish thought?
We can feel the tectonic plates shifting.
First came the challenge to Europe of the largest mass movement of people across borders since the end of World War II, a humanitarian crisis that has become knotted into what right-wing press were already perceiving as the unravelling fabric of European life. Then there was Brexit and the challenge it poses to the future of the European Union’s increasingly shaky stability. And now there is Trump – and this much-mocked businessman, TV reality star and egoist is about to destabilise further the post-War US-European network of alliances (NATO) and trade agreements in which our lives are embedded. Or so we have been led to believe: as yet, we have no way of knowing.
Will rhetoric become reality?
We can see which European politicians have been celebrating his election win – Martine le Pen, Geert Wilders, Norbert Hofer in Austria, Frauke Petry of the Alternative für Deutschland. They all hope to capitalise on the nationalistic, anti-establishment and racist populism that Trump’s victory represents. Economic despair may have given him millions of votes – but it is hard to ignore his anti-immigrant polemics as being a fundamental part of his appeal. His appointment of Stephen Bannon to the post of Chief of Staff – a white nationalist with a penchant for anti-Semitic conspiracy theories – is a chilling choice. And then there is Putin, whose laughter at Trump’s success must be filling the corridors of the Kremlin. Thirty years after the historian David Irving’s Holocaust-denying ‘post-truth’ history we have entered the world of ‘post-truth’ politics.
Both the Brexit and Trump campaigns had no hesitation in offering lies to the public.
Both campaigns recognised that once you dispense with truth, you have an astonishing freedom: you can say anything you want in the furtherance of your cause. Joseph Goebbels - Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda - made a career out of this freedom. He understood - and capitalised on - a psychological insight into our human susceptibility to simplistic statements that tell us ‘how things are’ or ‘must be’:
“in the big lie there is always a certain force of credibility, because the broad masses of a nation are always more easily corrupted in the deeper strata of their emotional nature than consciously or voluntarily".
This is how propaganda – and advertising – works: it speaks to our unconscious desires, or our unconscious wishes for clarity, for some graspable ‘truth’ in a chaotic, unstable world. Goebbels’ statement is often quoted in its own distorted version: "The bigger the lie, the more it will be believed." There is no documentary evidence that he said this, but in its simplistic form it has become what people think he said. Which is of course an unintended ironic confirmation that if something is distorted but then repeated often enough it becomes ‘true’.
‘And there appeared…’
This week’s Torah sedrah, Va’yera (Genesis 18-22), is a helpful one to reflect on in the light of these questions about truth and lies. The sedrah’s name is taken from the first word of the section: ‘And there appeared...’ – it alerts us to the themes that will unfold in the narrative that follows. The text will address what can appear before our eyes – and how we interpret what we see. And it will talk about what we refuse to see, the truths we can’t bear to see – and (in the story of Lot’s wife who turns back to see her city in flames) what we can’t bear not to see. It is all about sight, and insight – Biblical Hebrew does not distinguish between the two – and blindness, literal and metaphorical.
Take the opening narrative. The text says that God – Adonai, the ‘Eternal’ – appeared to Abraham as he sat in the tent door in the heat of the day (18:1). We the readers are given an omniscient overview of what is happening. But what does Abraham see?
‘He lifted up his eyes and he saw, and behold there were three people there.’ (18:2).
Three strangers. And he greets them with generosity and hospitality. Like a Cubist portrait, the storytellers place the two perspectives side by side, or one on top of the other: the overview and then the view from the perspective of Abraham . This dual perspective opens up a radical piece of theology: you meet ‘God’ in the Other.
Millennia before Martin Buber developed his philosophy of I-Thou, in which our relationships with others become one of the ways we encounter the divine, the Torah offers us a story about seeing in other people the image of ‘God’.
Abraham sees other human beings appear before him and he treats them with an open heart and a generous spirit – this is an encounter with the Eternal, the Eternal One.
And then we have a delightful turn of events, as the narrator gives us a picture – shockingly! – of a God made in our human image, a God who lies. How does God lie? One of these strangers tells Abraham:
‘When I come back next year, your wife Sara will have had a son’
and Sara overhears this (18:10). And the storyteller then reminds us that both Abraham and Sara were old, and that Sara no longer was menstruating (18:11). And then:
‘And Sara laughed (vatizchak) inside herself and she said to herself: “Now that I am so old and worn out, am I to have such pleasure, with my husband being so old?”’ (18:12).
This is a very daring sentence from our narrator. It shows us Sara eavesdropping on the conversation between her husband and the guests, then it reveals an intimate detail from Abraham and Sara’s sex life. The more you think about it, the more remarkable it is, for the storyteller gets us the readers, the listeners, inside of Sara: the verse penetrates her, symbolically, and we find out what this news does to her inside of herself.
It’s the first time in the Torah that we find this key word, tzachak, a word which is to echo and re-echo through the texts and the generations – tzachak, to laugh. It will of course become the name of the son, Yitzchak, Isaac – ‘the one who laughs’.
But where is the lie, God’s lie?
The next verse tells us that God says to Abraham:
‘“Why did Sara laugh, saying, “Shall I really bear a child, being as old as I am?”’ (18:13).
And there’s the lie. She says ‘he is too old’. But our narrator has God changing this, when he speaks to Abraham, into Sara saying ‘I am too old’.
So why does God tell this lie to Abraham? A midrash suggests that God did it so that Abraham wouldn’t feel offended or hurt: in other words, to protect Abraham’s feelings (Baba Metzia 87a). And so important was this principle, that the Rabbis derived a maxim, a rule of thumb, that one is allowed to lie if it will hurt someone’s feelings to tell the truth straightforwardly and honestly (Ketubot 16b-17a).
Why? Because to hurt someone’s feelings was equated by the Rabbis with the shedding of blood.
There is an extraordinary Judaic sensitivity here towards an individual and their emotional life. The other person is flesh-and-blood just like you, and has feelings just as real and sensitive as your own. Protect the other’s feelings as if they were as precious as your own.
And the Rabbis went even further than that. ‘When is lying acceptable?’ they asked. ‘Lying is also permissible’, they said, ‘if it is for the sake of peace’ (Yevamot 65a). (So if your partner says: ‘Do I look good in this?’ – the answer is ‘Yes’).
So on the one hand the rabbis in the Talmud stated that Emet, ‘truth’, is one of God’s thirteen attributes – they used the famous text of Exodus 34:3 as a reference. And they were unequivocal about this: ‘the Seal of God is Truth’ (Shabbat 55). But on the other hand in the real world they saw that there needed to be some flexibility about this. Lying ‘for the sake of peace’ can cover a broad spectrum: from international politics to personal relationships.
Jewish teaching does offer insight and guidance, and ways of thinking about all sorts of everyday situations - but it can’t give us an answer for a specific situation we find ourselves in. Only we are responsible for that. We have to judge and decide how to act, how to be, what to say, each time, every day, and the decision of today may not be relevant tomorrow. That’s part of the God-given burden of being human.
We live in a world where it can be hard to sort out the truth from the lies. Dizzying amounts of information, opinion, propaganda, deception, distortion, fabrication swirl through our daily lives. Who has the time, the energy, to sort out the truth from the lies? And yet I think of this task, of trying to stay attuned to what is ‘true’, to be part of the spiritual task of the Jewish people. In a week when Oxford Dictionaries has announced that post-truth is its international ‘word of the year’, our Jewish task seems to have become even harder – and even more important.
Rabbi Howard Cooper is a psychoanalytic psychotherapist in private practice, Director of Spiritual Development at Finchley Reform Synagogue, London, and a writer. He is the author of The Alphabet of Paradise: An A-Z of Spirituality for Everyday Life and he blogs on Jewish issues and current affairs at www.howardcoopersblog.blogspot.com