I took a class in college that has stuck with me: The Semiotics of Soviet Socialist Film. With_Glasnost_and an emerging Soviet openness, it was trendy in the world of pseudo-intellectual college students to watch hours of black-and-white Soviet films. I didn’t understand much about the class, but there was one reality-shattering takeaway that has informed my perspective ever since. Watching grainy footage in that classroom, I learned that there are multiple versions of truth.
As children, we are told to tell the truth. As we get older, most of us learn to authenticate multiple perspectives in order to find truth. The question remains: Can we find truth or is truth always constructed? How are facts related to truth? And if truth is constructed, how does that affect justice?
As a lawyer, I have sought truth and accountability throughout my career — from my early days as a labor lawyer (mediating relationships between workers and employers), as a human rights lawyer (holding states accountable for their actions to their people), and now advocating for the rights of students and journalists to find facts and speak truth.
As lawyers, we often weave facts into a narrative of truth, convincing a judge or jury that our version of truth is the”real”one, that their judgment can rely on our truth.
Often it works, but I’ve also seen how dangerous it can be — where people are wrongfully convicted of crimes they did not commit; where racial bias influences conviction rates and disproportionate sentencing; where states are not held accountable for their wrongdoing; where”truth”is wrong and judgment fails.
As we contemplate this High Holiday season, as we ruminate on the ultimate judgment that God makes — who shall live and who shall die — I’m struck by the impact of different versions of truth on judgment.
Jewish wisdom teaches that_teshuvah_can help us to avoid harsh judgment and alleviate punishment. We can restore ourselves through acknowledging our wrongdoing, apologizing for our misdeeds, and then changing our behavior. But_teshuvah_only happens when we commit to a reexamination of our own truths and a reshaping of our own narratives.
Although the High Holiday liturgy says that our fates are sealed as the gates of judgment close at the end of Yom Kippur, the Zohar offers that”judgment is concluded in the world and decrees go forth from the king’s palace”only at the end of Sukkot, giving us several extra days to change God’s mind. (Zohar 3:31b) Does God want to give us another chance to do the rightthing? Does God need more time to investigate and draw conclusions about each person? (There are, after all, quite a lot of judgments to make.)
I’m intrigued thinking about God not as a common law judge (sitting on high and determining truth after hearing adversarial arguments twisting facts) but rather as a civil lawjudge (investigating as well as adjudicating). Maybe God’s judgment is delayed while God considers the complicated, multifacetedlens of multiple truths, while narratives aredeconstructed and reexamined, facts are explored and rebuilt, and changes in behavior are taken into account.
Lawyers construct narratives to fit their version of truth. But there is a difference between claiming various perspectives on truth to create a narrative and distorting truth to fit a narrative. We need to be diligent about this, both in our justice system and in our personal lives: to acknowledge how different truths shape narratives and to challenge ourselves to reflect on how our truths line up with the facts and how those facts affect judgments. As Jews, we are lucky to have a built-in system of appeal and restorative justice, using teshuvah, faith, and good deeds.
Hadar Harris is an international human rights attorney, now serving as the executive director of the Student Press Law Center in Washington D.C. She previously served as the executive director of the Northern California Innocence Project. She was awarded the 2016 Raphael Lemkin Human Rights Award from T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights.