What is truth? Where is responsibility?

If you were a Polish peasant sheltering Jews who had escaped the Nazis during the Sho'a and German soldiers came to your home asking if you had seen any Jews, what would you tell them?

None of us, thank God, have been in this situation. But have you ever been in a situation when you felt you could not tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?

Well, to flip the slogan over: just don't do it.

What more do you need to know?

******* sit down as though sermon is done *******

And yet, how often are we in situations where we are so tempted? As Rabbi Janice Garfunkel recently wrote:

We are creating a culture of lying, where one pretty much needs to lie on a routine basis to get along in this society.

For example, you go to do something like rent a car or skis, and just when you're ready to hit the slopes or get outa the car rental office already, they hand you an enormous document with lots of fine print, say "sign here," and wait expectantly for you to do so. Immediately above the signature line, it says that I have read, understood, and agree to all of the above. The truth is, except for lawyers, most of us cannot understand the paragraphs above. But what are we going to do? Not ski? Not rent the car until we've hired a lawyer to explain it all to us? Of course not! We skim it or don't, and sign. Lying made routine and inevitable.

Often what we are told to sign we know is worthless in court anyway, like an agreement that we won't sue them if something is wrong with the product we are renting or buying. And when we sign it, we do so on the assumption we will ignore what we signed if necessary. We will sue, if appropriate, despite having said we won't.

Furthermore, we are inundated with sales mail that routinely lies to us. It says one thing in big print, and in fine print (which they sometimes forget to print at all! Has anyone else failed to find the words the asterisk is supposed to be pointing to?) tells us that what it said in big print isn't at all true (like: Calls 10 cents/minute* *$9.95 monthly subscriber charge).

Much of what is written is intended to be incomprehensible or misunderstood. Which I think is the same as lying.

So, I admit it [she says]. I lie all the time. I sign saying I've read and understood things I have not.

OK, so, just try not to do it...?

About thirty years ago, one of my favorite rabbis wrote a paragraph we now find in our weekly Gates of Prayer Siddur... now follow this carefully:

... ah! ...

Duh, yeah, so, just don't do what?

We've grown up in a world remarkably different from the one that existed at the beginning of the century. Not long ago, Noam and I sat up late watching a TV biography of Albert Einstein. He's always been one of my "culture heroes". Einstein's discoveries marked a turning point in how we have understood our world ever since. Einstein truly convinced us that everything is relative on the physical plane, and from that we've generalized to the ethical and moral plane in our "post modern" world. Now we talk about "situational ethics."

"what is wrong may well be wrong for you but right for me...."

I know this. I grew up with the story of the Churkendoose. I may have shared this with you before. The story was intended to teach tolerance of various people. A strange egg was found in the hen house. No one knew whose egg it was so they each took turns sitting on it. Eventually the egg cracked and out stepped the strangest creature they'd ever seen: part chicken, turkey, duck and goose: they called it the Churkendoose. When everyone was shocked to see what a strange being it was, the Churkendoose broke into song:

It depends on how you look at things,
It depends on how you look at things,
Is the baby chimpanzee any prettier than me
It all depends upon, begins and ends upon,
It all depends on how you look at things.

We have taken this message to heart. Everything depends... our perception of truth depends on where we stand. It is a lesson that was being hinted at a century ago when John Godfrey Saxe wrote his poem The Blind Men and the Elephant

It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Thought all of them were blind).
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind

Each one came to know a different part of the elephant and so described it with a simile appropriate for that part of the body: tail - rope, leg - tree trunk, flank - wall, ear - fan. Of course none of them grasped what the elephant was in its entirety.

If he said it was like a fan and not like a rope, did he lie?

In a similar way we each approach the current crisis in American society using the tools (the perceptual and emotional proclivities and limitations) we have available to us. A letter to the New York Times last week (980918) from John Ullmann pointed out that much of what we are being shown in Washington is based on the perceptions of American Southerners. We Americans from various sections of the country, age groups and economic groups wear different filters that make us blind or heighten our perceptions to different kinds of behaviors.

This may be true, but others, including Ralph Melcher have tried to broaden our perception of the matter somewhat. In fact, the idea does not originate with him, but in an article from the Wall Street Journal (980911):

We could go so far as to suggest that the "something" about Kenneth Starr that so rubbed many opinion-makers the wrong way was the clear understanding that he was not just prosecuting Bill Clinton; he was prosecuting the entire culture that gave to what Bill Clinton represents.

I believe that this is what makes so much of what is happening so terribly painful for me and many of those who grew up with me. We understood that there were values expressed in America that echoed the words of our biblical prophets and our greatest rabbis. I believe that there has been an intense and undemocratic effort to destroy the Clinton presidency since its earliest days. But the irresponsible behavior of the president himself is depressing to watch.

Uh, what shouldn't I do?

It is as though no one is responsible for his own actions any more. This is a lesson I learned from a book Rabbi Richard Rubenstein wrote a number of years ago in which he argued that one of the cultural components that made the Sho'a possible was the development of the bureaucratic personality. This enabled an entire society to keep passing papers from one in-box to the next, denying ultimate responsibility.

We've all heard it:

"Don't do that." His mother told him as he reached up to get another cookie from the jar. He was a bit too short and, even with the little step he carried around with him he only reached to the lip of the jar. His fingers caught on the edge and pulled it over onto him spilling its contents onto his head. The jar fell to the floor and shattered spoiling the remainder of the cookies inside and sending shards of pottery around the kitchen. No more cookies.

"I didn't do it. It fell!"

I recall in our own home when I was growing up and we'd sit at the dinner table. Whenever someone would spill something or drop a fork on the floor, we'd say "It fell." My father would look up at as though searching for the hole in the ceiling through which it fell.


Many of us know the story of the Golem of Prague. Perhaps a precursor of Frankenstein, he was a creature of clay that the great Rabbi Loew brought to life. There are different traditions about how the good rabbi caused the spirit of life to breathe inside a lump of clay. One suggests that he took a parchment with the Shema written on it and placed this in the Golem's mouth. Another says that he wrote three letters on the Golem's forehead, the first, the middle and the last letters of the Hebrew alphabet:


Together they spell out the hebrew word for truth. But, if you remove the first letter, which is a consonant that makes almost no sound, and represents the name of God as written in the Ten Commandments, all you have left are the two hebrew letters that mean dead.

This time of Rosh haShannah calls on us to look truthfully at ourselves, our emotions and actions and take responsibility for who we are and what we have done. And, as Debbie is ending her remarks with these words of Psalm 15 may they find their fulfillment in our own lives and in our world:

Who may abide in Your house, O God?
Who may dwell 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 give their word and, come what may, do not retract.
Who do not exploit others, who never take bribes.
Those who live in this way shall never be shaken.

©Mark Hurvitz