Kol Nidrei 2017: Truth


We’ve arrived on the shores of a day overflowing with speech. Every other day of the year, we fill with deeds, but today with words: proclamations and entreaties, prayers and admissions, resolutions and articulations of remorse. No it all opens with Kol Nidre, which highlights the gravity of the spoken word.

“All vows, obligations and promises that we vow, swear, and impose upon ourselves from this Yom Kippur onward—may they come to good for us!—we renounce them all; they are null and void.” Like the High Priest who approached the Holy of Holies in awe and trepidation, we tremble lest one false declaration, one insincere promise, one disingenuous confession cross our lips and vitiate our atonement. Knowing in advance that we are going to fail in our awesome responsibility to uphold rigorous honesty on this sacred day, we seek, through the Kol Nidre, a kind of meta-absolution—which is to say, not just forgiveness for what we have done, but forgiveness for the distortions and deceptions we are about to employ in the very act of asking for forgiveness. At the outset of Yom Kippur, we establish telling the truth as the bedrock principle upon which atonement depends, although we acknowledge in the same breath our inability to fully live up to it.  

God is Truth. Whenever we proclaim out loud the Shema, “Adonai our God is One,” we conclude: Adonai Eloheichem Emet, “Adonai our God is Truth.” The Zohar amplifies in a passage we read every Shabbat morning: “Not on mortals do I rely, but on the God of Truth, whose Torah is Truth, whose prophets are Truth, who performs deeds of goodness and Truth.” Truth is a basic element within the Yom Kippur liturgy. The special High Holiday Amidah blessing is augmented with the phrase: udevarcha emet ve-qayam la’ad, “Your word is truth, enduring forever.” The centrality of Truth as a divine attribute authenticates our appeal for forgiveness: Adonai Adonai… ve-rav chesed v’emet, “Adonai, Adonai,… abounding in lovingkindness and Truth.” 

The problem is that we now live in a post-truth society. These days, some claims look truthier than others, because their tweets have the most followers, or the Facebook page on which they appear has the most hits. On the Internet, anyone can say anything, and there’s often no way of verifying the facts. Besides, objective facts no longer seem to carry much weight. Unfounded accusations go viral, but their repudiations are hardly noticed. I don’t know if officials deliberately intend to manipulate the public, or if they actually believe what they’re saying, but, either way, the “fake news” and “alternative facts” they peddle are corrosive.

Many people assume that the new technological platforms of social media, which proliferate information without regard for its veracity, are entirely responsible for the post-truth phenomenon. However, argues Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, it is nothing new to our age. In the 6th century BCE, the prophet Jeremiah inveighed against his own people, who “make ready their tongues like a bow to shoot falsehoods. Their tongues have become accustomed to lie; they no longer realize they traffic in lies. They live amidst deception; in their deception, they refuse all knowledge of Me, declares Adonai.” (Jeremiah 9) Shortly after this prophecy, the Temple was destroyed, not, says Jeremiah, because Jerusalem fell to the Babylonian conquerors, but because the people turned away from God. Similarly, free democracy will crumble, warns Rabbi Sacks, not from external threats, like the nuclear missiles of North Korea or Iran, but from our own abandonment of universally accepted moral principles. “A free society is a moral achievement. Without [Truth as a norm] we will lose it. Without a shared moral code that places Truth at the center, to which we are all accountable, into which we are all educated, and which we have all internalized, we will lose the trust in public life on which our very freedom depends.”

Discussions about Truth in Judaism distinguish two forms of honesty: ethical versus intellectual. The Talmudic precepts of ethical honesty concern dealings with our fellow human beings: maintain just weights and measures; do not defraud by overcharging the buyer or underpaying the seller; do not say one thing with your mouth and another in your heart; fulfill the promises you make to your neighbor; and so on. No less important, intellectual honesty obligates us to seek out and expand knowledge, wherever rational inquiry may lead. The notable saying Talmud Torah keneged kulam, “the study of Torah is equal to all other mitzvot,” speaks to this emphasis. Our Sages add that "an ignorant person cannot be pious.” (Avot 2:6). Effective Torah study requires intellectual curiosity, critical thinking, and fierce independence.

Torah must be grounded in reason—so taught Maimonides, preeminent Jewish authority of all time (second to Moses alone). The highest aspiration of human existence is to come to know God, beginning with knowledge of God’s creation. Maimonides states: “When a person contemplates God’s great and wondrous works and creatures, she may obtain a glimpse of divine wisdom, which is incomparable and infinite.” Maimonides was not averse to integrating science with Jewish teaching; indeed, the Mishneh Torah, his giant compendium of Jewish law, begins with the fundamentals of cosmology and chemistry as they were understood in his day. Also a highly skilled physician, Maimonides propounded his own medical expertise even when it contradicted earlier remedies cited in the Talmud. If he were alive today, he would have no problem embracing Darwin, and Einstein, and others whose discoveries overturned prevailing doctrine. He would approve of the T-shirt I saw at the eclipse gathering I attended: “science doesn’t care what you believe.” For Maimonides, Torah encompasses every field of knowledge, the physical and the metaphysical, and it is our religious duty to pursue them all.

Science and religion are often considered inherently at odds. If you accept creationism then you must reject the theory of evolution, and vice versa. I used to reconcile science and religion by contending that they occupy distinct, non-overlapping realms: science being descriptive, and religion prescriptive. Science explores what the universe is made of and how it functions, while religion addresses why we’re placed here on Earth and how we’re supposed to act in the world. Influenced by Maimonides, I no longer think that way. Both science and religion are concerned with understanding Creation and our role in it. When advancements in science cause us to revise previously held religious convictions, we, like Maimonides, should not be afraid to do so. That’s because the goals of science and religion are aligned in the service of self-understanding, as well as the bettering of our society and our world.

Just as the separation between science and religion is artificial, it seems to me that the boundary between intellectual honesty and ethical honesty also breaks down. In the 50s and 60s, while tobacco companies suppressed medical studies documenting the clear connection between cigarette smoking and lung cancer, tens of thousands of Americans kept dying. In 2017, when public officials discredit, censor and reject scientific data establishing the reality of climate change, the property, quality of life, and survival of millions of people in flood-prone areas are placed at risk—if not, eventually, that of every person on the planet. Intellectual fraud is a supreme ethical transgression. Our duty as adherents of the God of Truth is no less sacred to denounce falsehood in public discourse than it is to eschew deception in our personal relationships.

“Now, hold on just a minute!” I can hear the rebuff already. “You can’t tell me what to believe! This is a free country. I can say and think what I want, and if I think that the Earth is flat, that’s my prerogative.” Yes, up to a point. In terms of running our own life, we may subscribe to any proposition we please. However, once our creed begins to cause actual harm to others, we have crossed the line from moral autonomy to reckless, possibly deliberate, endangerment. This past June, an inflammatory billboard appeared on I-465, attacking Muslims by denigrating their prophet, Muhammed. In the press release I wrote on behalf of the Indiana Board of Rabbis, I responded: “Jewish tradition recognizes the vast power of words to create or destroy. The sages of old likened lashon hara, ‘the evil tongue,’ to murder. The legal right to free speech in America does not give moral justification to the dissemination of hatred.” Now, this example has to do with hate speech, as opposed to false speech, but the point is the same: just because we’re permitted to say something doesn’t mean we ought to say it.

“Not on mortals do I rely, but on the God of Truth.”

To believe in the God of Truth is to affirm that there is a moral order and a natural order, not subject to feeling, not subject to opinion, not subject to the majority, but which transcend all human authority. As a people consecrated to the God of Truth, our imperative is to maintain scrupulous adherence to the Truth, in word and deed, not only in our personal interactions with others but also as fearlessly pursue all lines of rational inquiry, including scientific inquiry, wherever they may lead.

To believe in the God of Truth is to believe in the God of Redemption. We Jews are the most inveterate people on the planet, surviving centuries of oppression and persecution, outliving civilizations, because we have never given up the vision of a universal fellowship of humankind bound together in common allegiance to the Sovereign of Truth.

To believe in the God of Truth is to speak the Truth, to ourselves and to others, within our hearts and with our lips, in private conversation with our closest intimates and to broad assemblies in front of thousands.  During the Yom Kippur service, we are about to recite: “You know the mysteries of the universe, as well as the deepest secrets of everyone alive. You probe the innermost chambers of our hearts; You examine all our feelings and thoughts. Only let our secrets enter our own minds; and let our words reach our own ears, that we may regret, and resolve, and return to You.”

On this holy day, full of confessions, replete with promises, overflowing with speech, may one unifying principle guide us throughout: “Every word uttered in truth is the Holy Name of God.”