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Are you telling the truth?

As fake news becomes the new normal, I’m revisiting these thoughts from 2010.

12d8aa967e8ef907e5f1f4932db629feAfter circling the globe one and a half times, living for nine years in Israel and one year in Hungary, and teaching adolescents for over two decades, it’s only natural that I have more than a few stories to tell. So it never fails to discomfit me when friends or neighbors respond to my essays by asking:

“Did that really happen?”

Are my anecdotes so truly unbelievable? After all, I never claimed to have flown to the moon on gossamer wings, to have crossed the Alps with Hannibal by elephant, or to have led the attack against Custer’s army at Little Big Horn. No, I’ve merely plucked useful insights from slightly quirky encounters in an attempt to uncover the wisdom that resides within myriad aspects of the human condition.

And so I’ve penned essays about my white fedora, which fellow travelers reported noticing as our paths crisscrossed throughout Europe; about the Israeli gentlemen who rebuked me in an elevator for wearing an earring while sporting tzitzis, the fringed tassels worn over the belt line according to Jewish custom; and about the ragged man who stopped in his tracks on the streets of Budapest, apparently overwhelmed and overjoyed to discover a religious Jew having survived the travails of the Holocaust and assimilation; these, together with assorted episodes from my high school class room.

“I loved your article,” an acquaintance will say. And then, with alarming frequency: “Did that really happen?”

I even get it from my mother.

To be honest, I can’t say that I’m surprised. After all, narrative accuracy has seen its market value tumble over the years. As candidate for president, John Kerry described how Christmas in Cambodia was “seared in his memory.” A stirring narrative, aside from the fact that he wasn’t actually there. In the Democratic primary four years later, Hillary Clinton reported that her parents had named her in honor of Sir Edmund Hillary — an impressive feat of prescience, since Sir Edmund had not conquered Mount Everest until five years after Ms. Clinton was born and named. Even Ronald Reagan, although never caught embellishing his own history, nevertheless brought tears to the eyes of his audiences with poignant war stories that turned out to be scenes from old movies.

Popular motion pictures that are “based on” or “inspired by” true stories often undergo such embellishment that they emerge bearing little resemblance to the events they claim to portray. Tonight Show host Jay Leno, in his autobiography, reportedly included anecdotes that actually happened to other people.  Mr. Leno explained that he had permission to use one story, and that he had paid for the right to use the other.

As in so many cases, the biblical injunction against speaking untruths extends far beyond the simple meaning of the words. The verse MiDavar sheker tirchak translates, simultaneously, as “Distance yourself from a false word” and as “Distance yourself from a false thing.”  Jewish philosophy teaches that words are not mere symbols or labels; they possess a substance and a reality all their own. Consider how a cruel word can inflict more pain than a sharp blow between the eyes, or how a well-placed compliment can produce more pleasure than the sweetest dessert.

When does a word or a thing become false? In principle, the slightest embellishment or exaggeration constitutes a violation of Jewish values, if not Jewish law. If one is uncertain about the details of a story, it is easy enough to add “I think” or “something like” to the narrative. That small concession to veracity helps us preserve our respect for the lines between truth and falsehood — lines that grow increasingly blurred in a society descending ever deeper into moral confusion.

the-truth-shall-set-you-freeThe Hebrew word emes, commonly translated as truth, is formed by the three letters that come, in sequence, at the very beginning, the precise middle, and the very end of the Hebrew alphabet. Before we can be certain that anything is true, we must have a sufficiently broad perspective; we must have all the information, accurately and in context; and we must have a clear understanding of the propriety of revealing that information and the consequences of doing so. Only then is it emes.

Consequently, sometimes even absolute truth may be considered false. In the case of malicious gossip, the accuracy of the information may result in harm even worse than slander by damaging relationships that would have been secure against rumor or innuendo. Similarly, details taken out of context, although factual, often imply conclusions that have no bearing on reality. They may be true, but they are not emes.

The distinction between words that are true and words that are emes easily leads us onto thin moral ice. What about “white lies” intended to spare the feelings of others, or “harmless” untruths meant to warm another person’s heart?

At first glance, Jewish tradition seems to endorse such ideas. The sages teach that Aaron, the High Priest, upon discovering that two friends had come to quarrel, ran back and forth reporting to each how sorry the other was and how desperately he longed for reconciliation, until the two parties resolved their dispute and became friends once again. The same sages tell us to always call a bride beautiful, no matter what she actually looks like.

But is it not true that true friends, divided by conflict, miss the relationship they once had and mourn their lost friendship? Is it not similarly true that every bride glows with an inner beauty projected at the moment of her greatest joy, and that she is truly beautiful in the eyes of her bridegroom? If so, is it not also true that the sages were offering us a profound lesson in how to interpret human nature?

Indeed, even if there may be cases that require us to speak some literal untruth to protect another person’s physical, mental, or spiritual welfare, such cases are few and far between. If we are honest with ourselves, we will concede that most of us will have rare occasion to bend or break the truth.

Perhaps, if we all exert more effort to ensure that all our words are words of emes, we will not find ourselves suspicious of those stories of little miracles and inspirational irony that can make our eyes sparkle and our hearts swell. And if a more profound commitment to honesty helps us become less cynical and more easily inspired, then what do we really have to lose?

What are Ethics? Part 9: When the means sacrifice the ends

Dr. John Bates made headlines early this year when he accused his former boss, Thomas Karl of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, of knowingly misrepresenting data to influence government policy on global warming.

Predictably, climate change skeptics railed against the corruption of the scientific community while climate change advocates charged Dr. Bates with exaggerating his claims.

Just for the sake of argument, let’s assume that the charges are true.  If so, it’s likely that Dr. Karl was motivated by the purest intentions, that he wanted to spur action to prevent the devastating effects of global warming, and that he believed that the data represented an anomaly rather than a larger global trend.

If all of that were actually true, would he have then been correct to doctor the facts for the greater good?

Click here to read the rest.

The Rights of Women and Robots

Have you heard what the Saudis are up to lately?

If you haven’t heard the story, you may not believe it.  But there’s a lesson in it for all of us.

Click to watch my short video.

What are Ethics? The Courage to Lead

Beware of the Ultras

Where did all these fanatics come from?

History traces the origins of some, but others remain a mystery.  My own personal theory is that one of the most fanatical sects of modern times was invented in the early 1980s by Time Magazine.

I’m talking about the group commonly identified as Ultra-Orthodox.

In truth, there is no such label.  Nevertheless, ultra is a favorite adjective of the media: it implies radicalization and imposes a stigma of extremism on otherwise respectable individuals and institutions.

Ironically, the same tactic gave rise to the term Orthodox itself.  In the early 19th Century, a movement coalesced among the Jews of Germany to bring “reform” to the 3100-year-old practices of Judaism.  To augment their own legitimacy, these self-styled reformers branded Jews adhering to traditional practice as “orthodox,” a pejorative intended to marginalize mainstream adherents as out of date and out of touch.

HIGHWAY TO HEAVEN?

Every driver on the road believes that he alone is travelling at the correct speed – anyone going faster is a maniac, and anyone going slower is a plodder.  And it’s no different with ideology, whether political or religious.

We all believe ourselves to be balanced in our worldviews.  Anyone to this side is a zealot; anyone to the other side is a heretic.  And there are always just enough true zealots and true heretics associated with any group so that detractors can point and declare, “See!  They’re all like that.”

The sign of true leadership, therefore, is not to denounce opponents on the other side of the aisle or the divide; rather, it is to call out those on one’s own side whose irresponsible speech or behavior threatens to discredit one’s own affiliation.

Former President George W. Bush drew fire from the right last week for doing just that, when he denounced the incendiary rhetoric and tribalism that have become too common within his own party.

Should Mr. Bush have called out those across the aisle as well?  Possibly.  But perhaps he hoped that leaders on the other side might follow his example and demand proper conduct from their own.  And indeed, only days later former President Jimmy Carter chastised the media for its open hostility toward Donald Trump, Colin Kaepernick and his cohorts for their disrespect of the national anthem, and Barak Obama for his “disappointing” presidency.

Meanwhile, two oceans away, a similar story of leadership unfolded.

A VOICE OF ULTRA-MODERATION

For decades, a large contingency among the community of Torah observant Jews in Israel has felt itself under attack by a secular government and secular society.  Recent legislation to eliminate army service exemptions for seminary students sent sparks into the tinder, igniting last week into unruly protests that blocked traffic, intimidated bystanders, and cast a pall of chaos over the city of Jerusalem.

In response, Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, one of the Torah community’s most revered leaders, broke his characteristic silence by denouncing the protesters as “empty” and “reckless,” an “inflamed mob,” and “public desecrators.”

Yes, there is justifiable cause for anger and protest.  But for those who choose to identify themselves as observant Jews, as children of Torah, and as students of the sages, it is inexcusably perverse to embrace the tactics of the street in order to defend a lifestyle of spiritual and moral refinement.

But the dark display brought forth a beacon of light, as Rabbi Kanievsky imparted the wisdom of true leadership upon the confused and misguided souls whose hearts may have been well-intentioned but whose reason clearly abandoned them.  Whether they aspire to be truly Torah observant or Orthodox Jews, their “day of rage” exposed them as deserving of only one label:

Ultra.

May we soon witness leaders on every side and from every corner who demonstrate the courage and conviction to denounce not only opponents but allies whose extremism endangers the essence of civilization and civil society.

Published on Jewish World Review

Guest Post: Stop “Talking” During the National Anthem

117 seconds. That is how long it takes, on average, for the playing of the National Anthem. So why are these 117 seconds becoming some of the most controversial in America?

Because people are “talking” during it. It’s not a time to talk. It’s a time to listen. And the voices that are supposed to speak at that time can’t be heard if others are talking during the playing of the Anthem.

Click to read the rest of a Gulf War veteran’s stirring call to action.

Video: What are Ethics? Mayim Bialik and dignity under fire

The Real Rainbow Coalition

The story of a Great Flood can be found in virtually every human culture.  However, the biblical record stands alone in its dramatic conclusion: as Noah emerges from the ark, the Almighty sets His rainbow in the heavens as a sign that never again will He visit the waters of devastation upon the earth.

Much has been made of the shape of the rainbow – an inverted bow to direct the arrows of divine wrath away from mankind.  But is this a hopeful sign?  Does it not imply that we are in fact deserving of destruction?  Does it not contain a warning, that only because of God’s promise to Noah are we spared the natural consequences of our own moral corruption?

And what do the colors and beauty of the rainbow signify?  Is it not incongruous to invoke something so beautiful as a reminder that a 4000 year-old covenant is all that stands between us and annihilation?

WANTING IT BOTH WAYS AND NO WAYS

In the old Peanuts comic strip, Linus once declared that, “I love humanity; it’s people I can’t stand.”

It’s no longer a joke.  As human society grows ever more fractured, we see everyone else as either too traditional or too progressive, too dovish or too hawkish, too far left or too far right.  Unity remains a dream we no longer believe in as we divide ourselves up into increasingly tribal enclaves.

Paradoxically, it is the strength of conviction that separates people from one another.  Too many of us believe that our way is more “beautiful” than anyone else’s way, that only we are the chosen standard-bearers, and that we alone speak Truth while all others are heretics or infidels.

Why do we find it so difficult to celebrate our — dare I use the word — diversity?  We give lip service to the value of multiculturalism, recognizing that our differences can make us greater than the sum of our parts.  But then we use distinctiveness as a wedge to set ourselves apart from others.

In modern society, diversity often becomes a club to bludgeon into submission all whose sense of traditional values or personal integrity compels them to reject the moral anarchy that defines our times.  Intolerance masquerades as forbearance, proclaiming an open-mindedness that is reserved only for those who conform to ideologically acceptable standards of cultural elites.

THE CHALLENGE OF MORAL EQUILIBRIUM

It was the same kind of violent division that brought the devastation of the Flood upon mankind.  In that benighted generation, the law of the jungle drove human beings to an unthinkable level of bestial corruption.  Had the Almighty not brought the waters of destruction upon the earth, human beings would surely have destroyed themselves.

Back then, it was selfishness and greed that tore society apart.  Today, it is ego and ideology.

True, it’s not easy to achieve the delicate balance between acceptance on the one hand and conviction on the other.  Tilting too far to one side catapults us toward moral dogmatism; tilting too far to the other sets our moral compass spinning in all directions.

So what is the solution?

The answer lies is seeing the rainbow as both beautiful and terrifying.  It is a symbol of diversity and how much we can achieve by celebrating our differences; but simultaneously it is a reminder of how much destruction we can bring upon our world when differences become justification for divisiveness.

To truly love our fellow human beings we cannot retreat into ideological isolation.  If we do, we will succeed only in marginalizing others in our own minds.  Ultimately, we must take great care to chart a course between the extremes of ideology and accommodation.

So reach out to connect with someone outside your own close, closed, comfortable group.  Engage people who think differently, not to debate but to exchange ideas and seek understanding.  Remember as well that the most exquisite flowers, the most dramatic seascapes, and the most inspiring mountain peaks are those that reflect all the colors of the rainbow.

Published in Jewish World Review

Honor Thy Fathers

Meritocracy.  Collaboration.  Personal achievement.

These are the ideals upon which was the United States was founded, the ideals that have made and continue to make America great.  They are also the ideals that have traditionally been associated with professional sports.

How ironic, therefore, that the NFL has been overtaken by a sentiment of rejectionism against the symbol of those very values.  How tragic to witness players use the freedom represented by the flag to show contempt and disdain for the country that has afforded them an opportunity for success they might never have otherwise had.

No, our country is not perfect.  But the flag represents that values that allow us to strive together toward a more perfect union.

That being said, it’s not the job of the president to call for the NFL to penalize those players.  It’s his job to demonstrate the responsible use of free speech by conducting himself with principled determination and disciplined self-restraint.

Our Chief Executive is responsible for passing fair and effective legislation while creating a national tone of respect and personal responsibility.  Implicit in that is knowing and showing where the division between the two must be drawn.

 

The Beauty of Misfortune

What would Gandhi say?

There’s not much question, really.  The icon of civil disobedience disdained every form of violence.  He most certainly would have condemned riotous demonstrations protesting any courtroom verdict, no matter how unpalatable.  So would Martin Luther King.

It’s easy to understand why many St. Louis residents took to the streets over the acquittal of former police officer Jason Stockley in the shooting death of Anthony Lamar Smith.  Officer Stockley’s comments and conduct raised serious questions about the credibility of his own testimony.  And civil protest is one of the foundational principles of a free society.

But on the other hand, the shooting followed the high-speed pursuit of a suspected heroin dealer, and video footage failed to substantiate the claim that Officer Stockley planted a weapon.  In the end, Judge Timothy Wilson concluded that there was insufficient evidence for conviction.

So did Jason Stockley get away with murder?  We may never know.  But that’s not the point.

TO ERR IS HUMAN

We all know that our justice system is imperfect, as any system designed and implemented by human beings must be.  Sometimes honest people make mistakes.  Sometimes authority is corrupt.  Sometimes the truth hides its face, and sometimes we have to accept that justice can be painfully blind.

It’s what we do next that matters most.

Some respond to frustration by venting their anger on whatever target crosses their path – in this case, by smashing the windows of 23 storefronts in my hometown, the St. Louis suburb of University City.

But from these senseless acts of misdirected destruction emerged an exquisite silver lining, an example of how human beings can discover within themselves true nobility in the face of injustice.

The morning after the carnage, volunteers appeared on the streets and began sweeping up the broken glass and boarding up the broken windows with plywood.  But even at that, the kindness of strangers had only just begun.

Before long, local artists showed up to paint the plywood panels, transforming stark reminders of wanton violence into beautiful murals of friendship and neighborhood harmony.

FACING THE FUTURE

This week, the Jewish community stands between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, between the Day of Judgment and the Day of Atonement.  On those awesome days, we gather together in prayer, one people with one heart, to recite the High Holiday prayers.  And as the liturgy rises to a crescendo, it impels us to ponder the uncertain future that awaits us in the coming year:

Who will live and who will die; who by water and who by fire; who by the sword or wild beast, who by famine or thirst; who by storm or plague or violence.  Who will rest and who will wander; who will have peace and who will suffer; who will be poor and who will have wealth; who will be cast down and who will be raised high.

We have no idea what the future holds.  Ultimately, we have no control over where fortune will take us.  What we do control, however, is how we respond to our own fortunes and the fortunes of our fellows.

When we see our neighbors in distress, will we drop everything and hurry to their aid?  When we behold injustice, will we add to injustice by lashing out impulsively?  Or will we stand shoulder to shoulder in a show of solidarity?

And when we witness senseless suffering, will we close our eyes and harbor vengeance in our hearts, or will we resolve inwardly to do better ourselves, to ensure that we never contribute to the problems of the world but apply our energies toward finding solutions?

There is so much good in the world from which to find inspiration.  And while some may add to the darkness with misdirected violence, let us call upon ourselves to rise to every challenge, to shine bright so we can inspire others to shine themselves.

Published by Jewish World Review