Consider and Converse: A Guide to Emet

Artwork by David Wander
Artwork by David Wander

Consider and Converse: A Guide to ‘Emet‘Truth’

Introduction

Sh’ma Now _curates conversations on a single theme rooted in Jewish tradition and the contemporary moment. At the heart of this issue of _Sh’ma Now _is the theme of “emet”“truth.” We are facing an unprecedented American political moment when our president — perhaps knowingly — obscures the truth. We daily hear about “fake news,” and we are often assaulted by a barrage of untruthful pronouncements. For this issue of _Sh’ma Now, I solicited essays that would examine the complicated nature of truth and the complexities of truth-telling. We hope that our four essays will help readers to recognize truth as a cornerstone to building an ethical society, and also to understand when truth becomes subservient to other Jewish values.

Sh’ma Now has never viewed learning or “meaning-making” as solely an individual activity. That’s why we have included this guide, which is specifically designed to help you to consider the idea of going forth independently or with others, formally and informally.

How to Begin

This guide offers a variety of suggestions, including activities and prompts for individual contemplation and informal or more structured conversations. We suggest that you use this guide to share reflections and thoughts over a Shabbat meal, or, for those who are more adventurous, to lead a planned, structured conversation, inviting a small group of friends and family to your home or to a coffee shop. If you would like more information about ways in which this journal might be used, please contact Susan Berrin, Sh’ma Now editor-in-chief, at SBerrin@shma.com. You can also print out a PDF file of the entire issue at http://forward.com/shma-now/.

Guidelines for Discussion

If you wish to hold a structured conversation, the following guidelines may help you to create a space that allows for honest personal exploration through sharing:

  • Create a sense of shared purpose that can foster the kind of internal reflection that happens through group conversation.
  • Remind participants of simple ground rules for conversations. For example: Avoid commenting on and critiquing each other’s comments. Make room for everyone to speak. Step into or away from the conversation appropriately. No one participant should dominate the conversation. Let silence sit, allowing participants to gather their thoughts.
  • For each of the questions below, we recommend that you print out the article in question, or provide the link to it, and we ask that you take a moment to read it in print or on screen, before the conversation begins.
  • Allow people a few minutes to absorb the article, perhaps even to read it a second time, before moving into the discussion.

Interpretive Questionscan focus the reader on the ideas in the articles.

  • Rabbi Amy Eilberg introduces readers to some of the source material on “emet” — “truth” — and invites us to consider the complexities of living a truth-filled life. Eilberg reminds us that twice each day, at the end of the recitation of the Sh’ma, traditional Jews add this statement: “Adonai, our God, is truth.” She writes: “Truth exists in relationship to other values, and it is dependent on context and perspective. In situations of conflict,
each party invariably finds some facts of the story more salient than others and interprets commonly held facts differently.” Is every lie morally wrong? Is lying contextual and conditional? Have you ever lied? For what reasons? When is telling a lie okay? Is there a hierarchy of acceptable deceptions? Is there a distinction to be made between not telling the truth and lying?

  • Robert J. Saferstein explores how photography became an art form, and he presents a brief history of its relationship to truth-telling. Initially, photography was not considered an art because it was factual rather than creative; only once photography could be manipulated was it considered to be true art. “And yet,” he writes, “every photograph is both a reflection and a distortion of some truth.” In commenting on this phenomenon, writer Susan Sontag said that a photograph was “not the truth about something, but the strongest version of it.” With editing apps such as Adobe Photoshop, what becomes of a photograph accompanying a newspaper story about crime or war or poverty? Today, what roles do manipulation and truth play in the presentation of photographs? What questions should we be asking about photographic distortion?

  • Rabbi Toba Spitzer shares some historical perspective about “speaking truth to power”—most notably, the courage to speak unpopular truths to those in powerful positions. As Spitzer acknowledges, “In Jewish tradition, words have the power to create and to destroy.” So, she wonders what power her words will yield. As a congregational rabbi, Spitzer says, she is seeking to nurture a transformation in the minds and hearts of those in her community. Who among your teachers has spoken most inquisitively and powerfully to you? What are the obstacles to hearing “truths” that you disagree with? Under what circumstances is it possible—or not possible—to gather courage and to speak your truth? How does this particular moment in American history influence your decisions? What Jewish wisdom and source materials guide and inspire you in speaking truthfully in challenging situations? When have you stopped short of truth-telling, and for what reasons?

Reflective Questionscan help one to integrate the ideas in these articles with one’s own sense of self.

  • Rabbi Marc Margolius explores the complexities of truth-telling, and he wonders how we might be more discerning about the ways in which we absorb information. The Talmud offers three reasons to conceal the truth: “In three matters, learned men can conceal the truth: in tractate, in bed, and for hospitality.” (Bava Metziah 23b-24a) Margolius digs more deeply into the pitfalls of embracing any rationale for lying: “By allowing literal truth to be bent for the sake of a higher purpose, the rabbis recognized the complexity of the subject. Their rationale also established the danger
f self-justifying dishonesty.” What are some of the ethical questions associated with truthfulness? Is it possible (and why/when) to conceal the truth? How does one balance opposing truths? Margolius goes on to suggest that we listen to the ancient words of the prophet Zechariah, which direct us in the use of good judgment. “Speak the truth with your neighbor; judge with truth, justice, and peace in
your gates.” (8:16) Applying Zechariah’s criteria, Margolius suggests that our “inner judge” should consider three questions: “Is this true?” “Is this just?” “Does this lead to shalom — to wholeness or wholesomeness?” To these three criteria, Margolius suggests, we might add two questions to ascertain truthfulness: “What are my biases and preconceptions? What are my blind spots?” When and where are your blind spots most acute—in religious settings? Political settings? Do you have specific ways of recognizing your biases?

  • In NiSh’ma,, our simulated Talmud page, three writers explore a stunning verse from Psalms about the delicate balance between some of Judaism’s highest values: truth, loving-kindness, justice, and peace. Our commentators reflect on the story of the angels Truth (Emet) and Peace (Shalom) arguing with the angels Loving-kindness (Chesed) and Justice (Tzedek) as God ponders the Creation: Rabbi Simon describes the “fierce debate between the angels in the heavenly court regarding the creation of humanity. The angels Loving-kindness and Justice argued that humans should be created, since they would do many acts of loving-kindness and justice. But the angels Truth and Peace objected, asserting that humans would be full of lies and conflicts. (Genesis Rabbah 8:5) Rabbi Daniel Roth offers this reflection: “This midrash interpreted the word ‘nifgashu’ in the verse not as ‘meeting,’ but rather as Loving-Kindness and Truth opposing one another; the word ‘nashaku’ was translated not as a ‘kiss,’ but as a clash between Justice and Peace.” Why are the angels arguing in this story? How do you understand a clash of values in which one value becomes subordinate to another? When, in your own life, do values conflict? And how do you determine which is the higher value to follow?

Your Comments

Sh’ma Now welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, Sh’ma Now requires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not and will be deleted. Egregious commenters will be banned from commenting. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and the Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

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