“Adonai our God is truth.” Twice each day, at the end of the recitation of the Sh’ma, traditional Jews repeat this powerful pronouncement about the nature of truth. To say that “God is truth” is to say that truth is essential to the structure of reality, central to God’s essence and to our own.
Yet Jewish tradition also invites us to consider complexities in the nature of truth. Truth depends on context, and it is, at times, subservient to other values.
The Talmud tells us that, at times, God lies when a higher value is at stake. When God told Sarah that she was to bear a child in her old age, she laughed, saying that both she and her husband were too old to conceive a child. (Genesis 18:12) Yet, when God told Abraham about Sarah’s silent laughter, God said only that Sarah protested that she was too old, to prevent insult to Abraham and conflict to their relationship. From this passage comes the rabbinic principle that it is permissible to bend or conceal the truth for the sake of peace. (Yevamot 65b)
So, too, Hillel and Shammai famously debate whether one must describe a bride as beautiful. Shammai, holding to a high standard of truthfulness, says that one must not say so when the bride is, in fact, not (physically) beautiful. Hillel rules that one must praise the bride’s beauty even if this is not objectively true, because the truth would be hurtful, and kindness is a higher value than truth. (Ketubot 17a)
A remarkable rabbinic midrash imagines that, during the Creation of the earth, groups of angels debated God’s intention to create humanity. The angel of loving-kindness argued that God should create Adam and Eve, for humans would bring kindness into the world. The angel of truth argued that God should not create humanity, “because humans are falsehood.” (Genesis Rabbah 8:5) The message of the angel of truth is severe but cogent. If truth were an absolute value, why would God create a creature prone to falsehood? According to the midrash, God chooses to create people and forces truth to live in relationship with imperfect human creatures on earth.
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. If the two sides agreed about what went wrong, there would be no conflict. So, too, the “facts” of a situation are, by definition, understood differently on opposite sides of an ideological divide.
Surely, one may not carelessly lie for selfish reasons. And we are rightly outraged when ideology drives people to deny or distort demonstrable facts. But the truth is, all of us lie or conceal things at times, and we certainly exaggerate and choose selectively from the “facts” in constructing our own ideological narratives.
We live in a time of unprecedented challenges to truth in contemporary American politics. As many have observed, truth is as essential a condition for democracy as it is for moral living. Our tradition requires us to be honest about when we distort the truth about the political other in order to score points or to confirm our own biases, or to bend the truth for personal self-aggrandizement.
As agents of the divine on earth, we are to defend the essential value of truth, but not by denigrating and degrading the other. A deeper truth emerges only when truth and kindness go hand in hand, as the psalmist said: “Kindness and truth have met.” (Psalms 85:11)
Rabbi Amy Eilberg is the director of the Pardes Rodef Shalom (Pursuer of Peace) Communities Program, helping synagogues and Jewish organizations to place the pursuit of peace in interpersonal relationships at the center of their communal mission. She also serves as a spiritual director and interfaith activist in the San Francisco Bay Area.