By David A. Teutsch
It’s easy to ridicule the Trump administration’s “alternative facts” about the inaugural crowd size and the imagined Bowling Green terrorist attack. And it’s tempting for liberals like me to blame the president for the erosion of truth in the American public square. But that is a dangerous oversimplification. These are just the latest and worst examples of the assault on truth that has been long underway.
- We have grown accustomed to the exaggeration and manipulation at the heart of marketing, and we are bombarded by advertising as never before.
- We have become cynical about the promises made by most politicians. Their tight relationships with wealthy elites and powerful lobbies make it ever harder for us to rely on their commitments to voters.
- Using rumor and innuendo is now not only the practice of sleazy tabloids. It has become a major force in social media. Defamatory attacks are no longer reserved just for the famous and infamous. They have become a painful daily reality that damages the lives of many teenagers.
- Entirely false news stories are being passed off to the public as truth, with the unwitting help of social media giants.
- The prevalence of falsehoods is so great that publications such as The New York Times have been forced to debate how to describe untruths. When should a lie be labeled a lie?
Jewish tradition understands that words have great power. Language creates our understanding of our world and shapes all our relationships. Genesis says that God brought the world into being through speech. The Talmud (Shabbat 55a) states that emet, truth, is the seal of God. A way to understand that statement is that being truly in touch with reality – the province of God – requires honesty. Honesty is required to create and maintain authentic relationships. Telling the truth is at the heart of Jewish speech ethics. If you abandon the truth, then you are creating your own reality – and potentially misleading others into a false reality
Over the next few years, political activists in the Jewish community will be working on many issues: Immigration, minimum wage, abortion rights, health care, incarceration, racism, and LGBT equality, to name but a few. As important as that work is, it should not distract us from a deeper societal issue – the erosion of our capacity to communicate due to deterioration in our society’s commitment to the truth.
Jews in particular have a stake in this issue, partly because of our ethical stance regarding truth, but also because anti-Semitism relies on people spreading untruths. Just as importantly, a country with a dishonest political culture undermines democracy and breeds corruption. That can threaten a large country like the United States or a small country like Israel.
What can we do? We can talk with our children about the danger of this trend. We can ensure that religious and public schools reinforce the message that integrity is an essential character trait. We can lobby to restore civics classes to public school curricula.
We can also do tokhecha; demanding honesty of others. Contact advertisers who are offensive and tell them we will not buy their products. Comment publicly when politicians go out of bounds. Correct falsehoods and exaggerations wherever we read or hear them. Join together to stand up for truth-telling.
Aleynu – it is up to us to ensure that the seal of truth is with us throughout every day.
Rabbi David A. Teutsch is the director of the Levin-Lieber Program in Jewish Ethics at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.