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Champion Truth – Sermon For Rosh HaShanah 5781

On a sunny Saturday morning in June of 1922, Walther Ratheanu, the German minister for foreign affairs, left his house in the outskirts of Berlin and sat in the back of his open-top coupe on his way to his office. A few minutes later, a dark gray car peeled off a side street and blocked his car. Two young men in long leather coats leaned out of the car. One shot him five times while the other threw a hand grenade which blew his car off the road.

What prompted this vicious attack? Rathenau was a successful German businessman and journalist. His family was a German enlightenment success story – his father a leading industrialist in 19th century Germany and Walther took over the business shortly before World War I. “I am a German of Jewish origin,” he wrote. “My people are the German people, my home is Germany, my faith is German faith, which stands above all denominations.” Following the war Germany was in tatters, the country devastated by the impact of the war and the oppressive terms of the Treaty of Versailles. The Weimar government was already unpopular at the time, but it was one sentence Rathenau had written in an essay years earlier garnered the attention of his assassins: “Three hundred men, all of whom know one another, guide the economic destinies of the Continent…” Rathenau was criticizing the oligarchical business tactics that were common in that period in Europe, but others saw in that essay a reference far more sinister: The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.[1]

The Protocols purports to share the notes of the leader of a secret cabal of Jews who seek to orchestrate total world domination. Its genesis is found in a novel called Biarritz published in 1868 by a scandal-mongering trash-novelist named Hermann Goedsche. The anti-Semitic novel describes a meeting held every hundred years by twelve princes of the tribes of Israel who report on the progress of their plan to take over the world. A French author named Maurice Joly took the idea and expanded it into what was eventually plagiarized by Sergei Nilus in 1905 and passed on years later to the Russian secret police. After World War I and the Russian Revolution, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion swept through Russia and then the world.

The Protocols was quickly debunked and proved a forgery. A book of lies.  And who believed them?  Millions.  Henry Ford said: “they fit with what is going on.”

Adolph Hitler lavished praise on the Protocols in Mein Kampf, arguing that the allegations of its forgery were simply Jewish propaganda and proof of the cover-up. Within ten years, the Nazi party made the Protocols required reading in Germany’s public schools, instructing readers, “… to study the terrifying avowal of the Elders of Zion, and to compare them with the boundless misery of our people; and then to draw the necessary conclusions.”[2]

The story of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion is just one in a long chain of conspiracy theories leveled against the Jewish people. In the medieval period, Jews were believed to be in league with the Devil, conspiring to plot against Christians with arcane knowledge and Black Magic. Jews were accused of poisoning the wells in the Black Plague, of kidnapping Christian children to use their blood in baking matzah, and more.

Why do people believe these conspiracy theories?  Why are we so drawn to lies and falsehoods?  All of us at times embrace things that aren’t true.  We lie to each other; we lie to ourselves. What is there in our psyche that leads us to dive down the rabbit hole?

Our world is extraordinarily complex, the scope and speed of change can be overwhelming, and to so many it seems we have less and less power to control our fate and our future.

There are two ways to greet the rapid changes we confront. We can approach new realities with curiosity and anticipation, imagining all the exciting possibilities that await us in the future.

Most of the time, however, we greet those new realities with anxiety and deep concern, imagining all the perils that await us in the uncertain future.

We can’t underestimate the power of fear. Fear emanates from the very core of our spiritual selves. And what is there in human experience that often makes us most afraid?  It’s when we feel like we’re powerless or we’ve lost control, when it feels like there are dangerous forces out there from which we cannot protect ourselves. 

All of us can think of moments when we faced that kind fear, and in the past year, many of us have felt that fear acutely. The novel coronavirus presents an illness we are just beginning to understand and that we are just learning how to treat. It has taken the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, and many who survive find themselves weakened and debilitated. And beyond that are the millions more who have suffered from economic calamity and collapse.

So many look at the world changing around us with deep apprehension and fear.  Everything we thought was solid is shaken. The local factory that sustained the city is closed. Storms and flood; drought and fires, economic stagnation or calamity seem to be unstoppable.

Lying in bed, awake at night, we wonder how we will care for our families, pay the bills, keep ourselves safe.

I imagine the Israelites, camped in the desert at Mount Sinai, lay awake too. It had been weeks since anyone had seen God or Moses. Where would they go? Who would protect them?

So someone gets an idea. You know, back in Egypt, we broke our backs to make statues of gods they said controlled our lives. Maybe we should make one too. So everyone starts bringing their gold earrings to Aaron, and he fashions a golden calf. You start hearing the cries: “This is your God, O Israel, that brought you up from the land of Egypt.”  Do you believe them? Wouldn’t it be better to know that a god, any god, was there to protect you, to guide you in the wilderness, to bring you to the promised land to live in safety and freedom.

Fear activates the deepest part of our psyche, and animates the deepest recesses of the soul. Fear creates a spiritual pain from which we will do nearly anything to escape.

The antidote to fear is power. And knowledge is power. So if we can replace our confusion with clarity, and our bafflement with knowledge, then we feel like we have regained some sense of control.  “When we can’t be in control ourselves, we’ll settle for thinking someone (or something) is in the driver’s seat. Psychologists call this compensatory control.”[3]

Rob Brotherton in his book Suspicious Minds explains that there are two ways we compensate when we seek knowledge to overcome our fear. One is to believe we have a powerful ally out there, fighting for us in ways we cannot see. The other is to believe we have a powerful enemy that is the cause of all our problems.  “The thing we want to avoid above all else is seeing the world as haphazard,” Brotherton writes. If things happen to us because of pure chance, we have little hope of comprehending, predicting, and controlling our fate. Believing that someone somewhere is in control – even if they don’t have your best interests at heart – is preferable to thinking that the course of your life is dictated by nothing more than chance.”  Is it any wonder then that we love superheroes and James Bond who battle the great global conspiracies that threaten to take over the world, or that millions of people believe that “Q” will expose the cabal of satan-worshipping pedophiles who control the media, Hollywood, and restore the world to utopia?

Another way we compensate for our sense of impotence is by pretending to knowledge we don’t really don’t have. In his book The Death of Expertise, Tom Nichols describes the Dunning-Kruger Effect, whereby the less we know about something, the more confidence we express in what we think we know.[4] We choose willful ignorance and see ignorance as a virtue. We bat away expertise – “what do those eggheads know anyways?” – and then dismiss experts as elitist. When scientists and scholars share uncomfortable truths that make us afraid, we look for reasons to debunk their claims, impugn their motives, and ignore their warnings.

In the age of the internet and unlimited cable television, we all fall prey to confirmation bias, the compulsion to find validation for what we want to believe is true. We can always find a website or an article that reassures us that what we want to be right is right. Our identities become so caught up in our beliefs, that as psychologist Jonathan Haidt observed, “when facts conflict with our values, almost everyone finds a way to stick with their values and reject the evidence.” We would rather shoot the messenger than grapple with the message. We doubt the science, rather than doubt ourselves.[5]

Our arrogance, conceit, and self-righteousness leads us to cancel out those who profess ideas we don’t want to hear – in university lecture halls and in the halls of government. The only truth-tellers we listen to are the ones who make us feel good, who tell us only what we want to hear, even if the truths they profess to tell are patently proven to be false.

But what happens when we live in a society where we abandon truth as a primary value? What happens when we no longer believe that veracity matters? 

Truth is not just the bond that holds free societies together – truth is the bond that ties our people to our God. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel learned from the Kotzker Rebbe, Menachem Mendl: “The meaning of living was found in commitment to Truth as the infallible standard for all decisions. The central issue is not Truth in terms of a doctrine, but veracity, honesty, or sincerity in terms of personal existence.”

Truth, honesty, integrity are the atoms that create molecules of trust, that form the bonds that create the living structures of holy life. When societies and relationships are built on lies, they crumble and disintegrate under the weight of their falsehoods, leaving bloodshed and rubble in their wake.    Hannah Arendt wrote in The Origins of Totalitarianism: “The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction and the distinction between true and false no longer exist.”  Power built on falsehood is a profane power – which may offer immediate comfort but is founded in greed, selfishness, hatred, and evil. Holy power is built on truth – on integrity, generosity, justice, and love.

The falsehoods on which we build our lives are no more capable of saving us than the golden calf we worshipped in the wilderness.  And our profession of falsehood our tradition teaches is likewise the greatest of sins.

We can lie to investors and our business partners, but eventually our crooked schemes collapse in ruin.

We can lie to our spouses and our families, but eventually our unhappiness, or worse, infidelity, will destroy our marriages.

We can lie to ourselves about how the Coronavirus spreads, but our willful ignorance leads to infection, illness, death.

We can lie to ourselves about climate change and the perils of global warming, but our resistance to change will continue to alter the planet’s climate, bringing ever more devastating drought, storms, sea rise, poverty and migration.

If we are to truly redeem our society, if we are to truly redeem ourselves, then we have to resolve to be champions for truth. We can no longer be complacent with a world that normalizes falsehood, denigrates truth, ridicules the quest for knowledge, and sneers at expertise. 

How can we begin again to be champions of truth? It’s  about cultivating the humility to accept how much we really don’t know, when we renounce willful ignorance and instead embrace an openness and readiness to learn. We champion truth when we are willing to subject our pre-conceptions to the rigors of investigation and analysis. We champion truth when we resist the temptation to salve our wounded spirits with easy demonizations and scapegoats of the other.  We champion truth when we listen carefully and critically and with respect to those who have devoted their lives to developing expertise and experience we cannot possibly pretend to know.   

In this New Year, 5781, in this time when so much is at stake, let the sounding of the shofar inspire within us the faith and courage to admit the hard truths: we’re scared, we’re anxious, we made errors in judgment, we hurt people, we believed in things that aren’t true, we were weak, we made poor choices, we have to change. Let is call us to banish falsehood from our world, and to embrace the truths we have learned from God for centuries, that love and justice, knowledge and wisdom, are what will lead us toward a promised land of holiness and peace.

[1] Rob Brotherton, Suspicious Minds: Why We Believe Conspiracy Theories. New York: Bloomsbury Sigma, 2015, pp. 31-40

[2] Ibid, p. 41

[3] Ibid., p. 110.

[4] Tom Nichols, The Death of Expertise. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017, pp. 43-44.

[5] Ibid., p. 69.


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Tell The Truth

In second grade, Mrs. Greene brought our class to the All-purpose room at Farmland Elementary to stand around an enormous map of the United States.  She was trying to teach us about directions.  So she asked, “Who here was born in a state in the eastern part of the United States?” Since most of us were born in Maryland, a lot of hands went up.  She called on one girl who said: “New York!” so she said, “Good, go stand on New York – you are going to be Miss East!”

“OK,” she said, “Who was born in a state in the South?” A few kids raised their hands, and she called on one boy who said, “Texas!” and she said, “Good, go stand on Texas – you are going to Mr. South!”

I was starting to feel bored and a little left out. So when finally, Mrs. Greene asked, “Ok, who was born in a state in the North?” I raised my hand.  “What state were you born in?”

“Montana!” I shouted.  Mrs. Greene said, “Great Danny! Go stand on Montana – you are going to be Mr. North.

I have to admit, it was a lot more fun to be Mr. North for the morning than to be a regular old nobody from Maryland.  That is, until later that night.

“Daniel Edward!” my mother called.  I knew I was in trouble because she used my middle name. “Why did you tell Mrs. Greene that you were born in Montana today?”  “What do you mean?” I stammered.

“Well,” my mother said, “I just got a call from Mrs. Paul, who told me that your friend Sarah came home from school and said you told your class you were born in Montana.  She wanted to know when we lived in Montana.  Danny, you lied.  That’s terrible.”

I don’t remember much else, except that I had to go to school the next day and apologize to Mrs. Greene for lying to her about Montana.

Lies, deceit, and dishonesty seem to have become a hallmark of our society and our world today.  Sissela Bok in her book Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life remarks that in the 1950s, most people had faith in our leaders, institutions, and each other. In 1960, “many Americans were genuinely astonished to learn that President Eisenhower had lied when asked about the U-2 … spy plane [that] had been forced down in the Soviet Union.” But only 15 years later, in the aftermath of the War in Vietnam and Watergate, nearly 70 percent of people surveyed said that “over the last ten years, this country’s leaders have consistently lied to the people.”[1]  According to the Pew Research Center, only 19% of Americans today say they can trust the government always” (3%) or “most of the time” (16%).[2]  This decline in confidence spreads to our feelings about medicine, the heads of major companies, the justice system and the media.  Fact checking has become a natural part of the national debate, and we hardly bat an eye when Politifact labels a lie worthy of their “pants on fire” rating.

But the practice of deception and the degeneration of public trust literally has the power to destroy our society. Bok asks us to “imagine a society … where word and gesture could never be counted on. Questions asked, answers given, information exchanged – all would be worthless … this is why some level of truthfulness has always been seen as essential to human society, no matter how deficient the observance of other moral principles.”[3]

Honesty is found in the very core of our moral tradition. In the Ten Commandments alone, two different admonitions focus on veracity – the commandment that we should not invoke God’s name for a false or vain purpose, and the commandment that we shall not offer false testimony against each other. (Exodus 20:6 and Exodus 20:12).  The Psalms teach us that “he who deals deceitfully shall not live in my house; he who speaks untruth shall not stand before my eyes. (Ps. 101:7)”

We are taught from the youngest of ages that we must always tell the truth.  Our system of justice depends on the idea that every witness tell “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.”  Trust is a social good to be protected as much as the air we breathe or the water we drink.[4]

So then why do we all lie so much?  If it is so plainly obvious that the core of our morality is embedded in integrity, honesty, and truthfulness, why is it that people lie and deceive with such terrible frequency?

Sometimes it’s actually okay for us to lie.  A friend asks you for your opinion on their new haircut – “you look marvelous!”  The Talmud permits us to lie in order to cultivate modesty or to protect someone from embarrassment.  Hillel tells us that we must always compliment the beauty of a bride, even if we personally don’t find her beautiful.  In cases of personal danger, we are sometimes even obligated to lie.  When Abraham and Sarah make their way to Egypt, Abraham says to her: “When the Egyptians see you they will say, ‘this is his wife’; and they will kill me, but keep you alive. So please, say you are my sister that it may go well with me for your sake… (Genesis 12:12-13).”  When Pharaoh orders the murder of male infants, the Hebrew midwives Shifra and Puah lie to Pharaoh to protect the mothers and sons of the Israelites, and the Torah tells us they were greatly blessed with goodness (Exodus 1:15-20)

But mostly Jewish tradition represents a passionate exhortation for truth.  Integrity and honesty are prized virtues.  There is even a tradition in the Talmud that when Rabbi Abaye would buy meat from partners, he would pay each partner separately, and settle up later, so that neither partner would think that he left without paying.[5]

But despite the fact that honesty is rooted in our moral core, dishonesty is pervasive throughout our society.  A survey conducted by Accenture found that nearly 25 percent of U.S. adults approved of overstating the value of claims to insurance companies.[6]  75 percent of college students report having cheated at least once during their college careers. Scores of dishonest mortgage brokers deceived millions of Americans into buying homes they never could afford, setting up the financial collapse that created the Great Recession, causing untold pain and heartache for millions of people. And don’t even get started with the political campaign, where even the candidates tell you to check the fact-checkers.

So why do people lie and cheat?  The classic economic theory teaches that each of us are inherently selfish human beings, interested only in how to maximize our economic self-interest.  The decision to be dishonest depends on how we balance the expected benefits, like getting money, increasing business, or professional advancement, and the expected cost, like paying a fine, losing a job, or going to jail. According to this perspective, people think of three things as they pass a convenience store: how much cash could I get from robbing the place, what’s the probability of getting arrested, and the magnitude of the consequences if I am caught.[7]

But there is also an internal mechanism that governs our decisions. Psychologists show that people internalize the norms and values of their society. If it’s a general moral expectation to be honest, then when we do things that are honest, which matching up with society’s values, our internal system provides a positive reward – you did good.  Brain imaging studies show that the same reward centers in the brain are stimulated from doing what society teaches are good social acts with other pleasure stimuli like eating chocolate.[8]

Like most people, we like to think of ourselves as honest. Most of us have some sense of our own morality and we want to maintain our perception of ourselves as good, moral, and honest people. For example, let’s suppose we’re at a restaurant and when the bill comes, we see that the waiter forgot to charge us for one of the entrees. We can save a few dollars by paying the bill as is, or we can tell the waiter to add the forgotten item. If we don’t pay, then our actions won’t comply with our sense of honesty, and we will have to tell ourselves that we are dishonest, which is something that is naturally abhorrent.  The cognitive dissonance that comes from this conflict can sometimes be enough to regulate our behavior.

The space between the reality of the world as it is and the reality of the world as we wish it would be creates a psychological and spiritual pain – and just as your hand will automatically jerk back when it touches a hot stove, so will we do nearly anything to get out of that pain.

So we lie.  When I was a kid, the real life I lived was not the life I wanted to lead.  I wanted to be cool and accepted, so I made up stories that I thought would get other people to like me.  I couldn’t handle the fear of not succeeding at school, so I would lie and say I had finished my homework when I hadn’t opened the book.  Someone wants to believe he’s a good provider but isn’t making enough money to cover everything, so he lies and moves a little money around, always intending to pay it back.  Someone wants to believe she’s a good person but isn’t fulfilled in her marriage so she lies to her spouse and has an affair.

Psychologists Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson call this dissonance reduction. A person gets addicted to drugs and convinces himself that he can handle it because he simply can’t admit to himself that he’s lost control. We hurt someone we love, but we can’t admit that.  We tell ourselves, “I’m a kind person; you’re telling me I hurt you?  You started this fight so you deserve whatever I did to you.”

The implications of these self-deceptions are immense, because they show how many problems arise not just from bad people who do bad things, but from good people who justify the bad things they do, in order to preserve their belief that they are good people.[9]

If we couple the natural instinct to protect ourselves from confronting painful realities with a world that is more and more dishonest then we find ourselves in a place that is incredibly dangerous.  If we have a society that tells us it’s acceptable to be dishonest, then we remove that internal moral mechanism that keeps our tendency toward dishonesty in check.  We begin to justify dishonesty as an acceptable means to achieve some greater end. My political campaign doesn’t need to be honest because it’s more important to win the election. We don’t have to tell the truth about a potentially fatal flaw in our copmany’s product because acknowledging it will cost us so much money we will have to let people go or lose the business altogether.

And it’s not just the lies we tell each other – it’s the lies we tell ourselves. If a person begins to feel tightness in her chest, a pain in the jaw and a tingling down the arm, and lies to herself and says, “Oh, it’s just a bit of indigestion,” that refusal to confront reality may ultimately be fatal.  If a young person starts to smoke cigarettes, and lies to himself that he can kick the habit any time he wants, that smoking really isn’t that bad, and hey, there are people who smoke every day who live until their 90’s, he may not pay the price right away.  It may wait until he’s in the middle part of his life, when his family is growing, he has kids who are depending on him, and a career that is just taking off when the doctor tells him he has cancer.  If we continue to deny the reality of climate change, and insist that the science isn’t conclusive, that human contribution to global warming is a hoax, and that we shouldn’t have to change how we live and power our world because, after all, the Chinese are the real culprits, then we may find that our grandchildren, who didn’t create this problem, will be forced to live in a world of ever more dangerous storms, desertification, drought, famine, and mass migration that will make the refugee crisis in Syria pale in comparison.

Eventually the slippery slope of deceit and dishonesty will rot the foundation of our society, and cause it to come crashing down around us, destroying everything we hold sacred, even our very lives.

As Sissela Bok writes, “trust in some degree of veracity functions as a foundation of relations among human beings; when this trust shatters or wears away, institutions collapse.”  Society only works if we can have some degree of trust and faith that people will tell us the truth, and it’s not fair to expect others to tell us the truth if we are unwilling to tell the truth to ourselves.

Our society is not condemned to be destroyed by deceit.  As this holy day reminds us, our moral lives are founded on choice.  As Sissela Bok writes, “Trust and integrity are precious resources, easily squandered, hard to regain. They can thrive only on a foundation of respect for veracity [and truth].”

If we really mean it when we say we’re tired of all the lying and cheating we see in our world, then we have to start with ourselves. Each of us can choose to build our lives on a foundation of integrity and honesty. We cannot confront the personal challenges we face in our individual lives and the awesome problems we face in our collective world if we cannot find within the moral courage to be honest with ourselves and each other.  It may make us feel better to deceive ourselves by finding stories and random facts to fit the theories we already believe about ourselves and the world, but what we really need is to have the courage to see our world as it really is, and to see ourselves as we really are.

But it’s more than that.  Just as my parents taught me in my teens, if we are honest with ourselves, we may begin to really know ourselves.  If we can summon the courage to look at ourselves honestly in the mirror, we may see reflected there a beauty we never saw, a wisdom we never understood, a strength we never knew.  And if instead of lying to each other we told each other the truth, we might be able to rebuild the bonds of trust that our indulgence with dishonesty has torn apart.

The words of Psalm 15 teach us: Adonai who may dwell in your house, who may abide in your holy mountain?  Those who are upright; who do justly; who speak the truth within their hearts. Who do not slander others, or wrong them, or bring shame upon them, who scorn the lawless but honor those who revere God; who give their word and come what may do not retract; who do not exploit others and who never take bribes. Those who live in this way shall never be shaken.

In this New Year 5777, if we truly want to live in a world that is more honest and secure, then we need to start, each one of us, by being honest with each other, and by being honest with ourselves.

[1] Sissela Bok, Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life. New York: Vintage Books, 1999, p. xxx.

[2] http://www.people-press.org/2015/11/23/public-trust-in-government-1958-2015

[3] Op. Cit. Bok, p. 18.

[4] Op Cit. Bok, p. 26.

[5] Babylonian Talmud Yoma 86a

[6] “Dishonesty in Everyday Life and its Policy Implications” by Nina Mazar and Dan Ariely published by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, No. 06-3, January 2006, p. 2.

[7] “The Dishonesty of Honest People: A Theory of Self-Concept Maintenance” by Nina Mazar, On Amir, and Dan Ariely. Journal of Marketing Research, Vol. 45, No. 6, pp. 4-5.

[8] Ibid., p. 5.

[9] “Why We Lie to Ourselves When We Make Mistakes” by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson in Time, October 30, 2015.


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