In our era of “alternative facts” and “fake news,” renewing our commitment to the middah (spiritual/ethical quality) of emet/truth takes on particular urgency. But in Jewish tradition, even this apparently straightforward value resists simplification. While rabbinic sources exhort us to practice truthfulness, they also caution that competing core values — such as protecting others from shame and financial loss, or preserving shalom bayit (peace in the home) — may justify bending the literal truth. Truth is not an absolute value; it must comport with and serve ends that are compassionate and just.
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 of self-justifying dishonesty. Avoiding this pitfall demands a high level of self-awareness and discernment. In parshat Shoftim, Moses instructs the Israelites to appoint “judges and officers in all your gates.” (Deuteronomy 16:18) The Jewish mystical tradition understands that “gates” are both the municipal gates where judicial officers would sit and, symbolically, the internal portals connecting our inner and outer worlds. In the Mei HaShiloach, the Hasidic master Rabbi Mordecai Yosef Lainer of Izbica describes these as “seven sense-gates by which we receive God’s goodness: two eyes, two ears, two nostrils, one mouth.”
This means cultivating an awareness about how we absorb both external stimuli and our internal thoughts and emotions. To this inner, often subconscious process, the ancient words of the prophet Zechariah direct us to apply judgment or discernment: “Speak the truth with your neighbor; judge with truth, justice, and peace in your gates.” (8:16) Applying Zechariah’s criteria, our “inner judge” sitting in our “gates” observing thoughts, emotions, and impulses arising within us is called to consider three questions: “Is this true?” “Is this just?” “Does this lead to shalom — to wholeness or wholesomeness?” To these, we might add: “What are my biases and preconceptions? What are my blind spots?”
Also in parshat Shoftim, Moses warns the Israelites about the corrupting influence of bribery on truth-telling. Rabbinic tradition construes the prohibition against taking bribes broadly, applying it to anything that consciously or unconsciously distorts our judgment and undermines our pursuit of emet/truth. The 19th-century Hasidic master Rabbi Avraham Bornsztain adds that while blind persons are aware of their challenges and, when necessary, ask for assistance from someone with sight, we are often unaware of our own limitations. We sometimes confuse perception with reality and refuse to seek help.
This ancient insight teaches us to be wary of “implicit bias” — our unconscious attitudes or stereotypes that impact our decisions and actions. Most of us inhabit personal and collective “bubbles” that reinforce rather than challenge our predispositions and assumptions. Our implicit biases (or “inner bribes”) undermine our practice of truth-telling in the pursuit of justice.
Our society is beset by toxic partisanship and endemic institutional discrimination. To address the roots of our collective “blindness,” we might heed the words of Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler, a 20th-century mussar master: “If our opinion comes easily to us, without struggle, we should suspect it and search more deeply for our underlying motives; if our opinion emerges from a serious effort to recognize and correct for our predispositions, then it is likely closer to the truth.” (Strive for Truth, p. 163)
Our tradition values emet as central to the quest for a just and compassionate society. We are now engaged in a critical struggle to reclaim factual evidence, logic, and reason as the bases for civil discourse and democratic process. In this endeavor, our tradition calls us to cultivate a greater awareness of our temptation to excuse hyperbole, partial truths, and self-justification. As Psalm 15 teaches, to actualize our innate holiness, we must “speak truth not only to others, but in our hearts as well.”
Rabbi Marc J. Margolius is a senior program director for the Institute for Jewish Spirituality and rabbi emeritus at West End Synagogue in NYC.