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Fighting Truth Decay

Rabbi Max Chaiken

Sermon for Rosh Hashanah Morning 5780, Rabbi Max Chaiken

Shanah tovah! A great sage once said that “the truth… is a beautiful and terrible thing, and should therefore be treated with great caution.” That sage was not Rabbi Akiva, or Rabbi Yohanan; not even our great sage Hillel. No, that sage was in fact the wizard Albus Dumbledore, who spoke these words to Harry Potter at the end of The Sorcerer’s Stone. “The truth… should… be treated with great caution.”
And while we are not wizards, and we do not have magic wands to make our world better on her 5780th birthday, these words offer us a warning as we begin this new year. Because the truth is indeed a beautiful thing—perhaps even something divine, and yet truth is under attack, and it should be a siren of caution for us all.
It comes as no surprise to you that we live in a time where fake news and fake science parade around in masks of truth. We live in a time where people can distort photos and videos to mislead us more easily than ever. Bad actors can even create the appearance of events that did not happen. We live in a time when faith and opinion get mistaken for fact, and where manipulative forces plant uncertainty and doubt in fields of our minds. And in turn, this doubt—this inability for us to conduct rational, fact-based discourses in society—threaten our ability to address the very real problems facing our world.
This morning, as we celebrate the creation of this world, the shofar calls out to us: take caution! Seek out truth! It cries out with a warning that now is the time to fight for facts, and restore rational discourse as a non-partisan principle in our society.
One non-partisan institute, the RAND corporation, has been studying this deterioration of truth and facts. They call it Truth Decay. But you can’t go to the dentist for this one. They define it as “the diminishing role of facts and analysis in American public life.”[1] Valiantly, RAND is committed to fighting this disease through research and analysis of both its causes and impacts. The causes include cognitive bias—believing ideas and stories that we are pre-disposed to believe, regardless of their veracity, along with the rise of social media as a primary source of news, and the increasing levels of social and political polarization.
In part, the truth can be vulnerable to this decay because human beings are not perfect judges of truth. Our senses can be deceived. Our perceptions, our understandings of the truth, are often incomplete. Our minds can be manipulated by others, and even by ourselves. Scientifically, this relates to the fact that our brains must constantly interpret so much data: from our basic sensory perceptions and caring for our physical and emotional safety, to judging the veracity of new stories and sources. There’s a lot for any one of us to process in every given moment, and we don’t always get it right.
But Truth Decay has also impacted us at a societal level. In my life, I’ve noticed fewer and fewer stories that challenge my pre-existing beliefs; more and more time, scrolling and scrolling through a “news” feed full of click-bait, deception, and misleading appearances; more and more time reinforcing a social and political bubble. I imagine that you’ve all noticed Truth Decay in different ways in your own lives, and it impacts us at a global level as well.
For decades, scientists have produced evidence that human activity contributes to climate change and global warming. We can read stories about retreating arctic ice and the acidification of our oceans. We see the devastation from extreme weather events, both abroad and here in Southern California, as the fire season seems to get longer every year. The fact of climate change—the truth of this reality is as well established as any scientific truth can be. NASA puts it this way:
The current warming trend… is extremely likely (greater than 95 percent probability) to be the result of human activity since the mid-20th century and [is] proceeding at a rate that is unprecedented over decades to millennia. Earth-orbiting satellites … have enabled scientists to… [collect] many different types of information about our planet and its climate on a global scale. This body of data, collected over many years, reveals the signals of a changing climate.[2]
These are not uncertain terms. The data is robust and clear. While this truth may be inconvenient, as Vice President Al Gore warned us 20 years ago, it remains the truth. And still we find large percentages of the general public, scarily including policy makers, who deny the evidence outright; who reject the truth.
According to California Governor’s Office of Planning and Research, these “climate deniers” succeed in convincing people by, and I quote, “[spreading] misinformation about the science” and “[casting] doubt on well-established findings and conclusions. Their goal is to create confusion and uncertainty, thereby preventing meaningful action to remedy the problem.”[3] In other words, truth decay sows doubt, calls facts into question, and leads us to collective inaction, which, at least in this case, threatens life on this planet for us and generations to come.
We see another symptom of Truth Decay in the highest elected office in our land. (white house) Even setting aside the most recent political developments in Washington, an August article in the Washington Post calculated that President Trump had made more than 12,000 false or misleading claims since taking office. That’s more than a dozen each day, on a wide range of topics, from whether-or-not he is building his border wall, to the state of the U.S. economy, and even to the track of a hurricane being observed by NASA meteorologists.[4] This administration even became known, back in the first months of his presidency, for coining the phrase “alternative facts.”
To be clear, this estranged relationship with truth and facts did not begin with Mr. Trump, and it is not exclusive to one party or the other. The non-partisan organization Politifact has been around since 2007, fact-checking statements made by journalists and politicians alike, on all sides of the political aisle, to determine their truthfulness.
But we have a role to play as well. We must hear the shofar calling us spiritual and communal action: because to fight the creeping of lies into the realm facts, we need more than organizations committed to the cause. It will take each one of us, working together, using our minds and our voices to hold ourselves and our society accountable to Truth.
Luckily, our Jewish tradition has quite a bit to say about Truth. We are warned in the book of Exodus to “stay far from falsehood,” and our 10 commandments demand that we do not “bear false witness.” The prophet Jeremiah says that “God IS Truth,” (Jer. 10:10), and our sacred poetry of Psalms remind us that “God’s teaching,” our Torah, “is Truth.” (Ps. 119:142)
In fact, the Hebrew word for truth is emet, composed from the first, middle, and last letters in the Hebrew aleph bet—alef, mem and tav. One way to understand this, then, is that there exists nothing that does not fall subject to the boundaries of Truth. We may have to seek it out, but our tradition does not mince words: there is such a thing as Truth, and we are responsible for seeking it out and honoring it.
Our medieval philosophers, Saadia Gaon and Moses Maimonides, among others, understood our minds as the most incredible gift from our Creator. We have brains and senses that we can use to perceive the world around us, to test out hypotheses, and to refine our knowledge itself. They taught that our ability to engage in science represents a gift from God, and in turn, we are capable of, and responsible for the continuous unfolding of knowledge, of Torah, and of truth.
In one particular midrash—an interpretive story about the creation of humanity, we see Truth itself personified as an angel along with Compassion, Justice and Peace. These angels are making arguments before the Holy One about whether or not to create human beings, when Compassion says “create them, for they will do acts of loving-kindness.” But the angel named Truth replies, “do not create them, they will be full of lies.” Justice chimes in, “create them, for they will do acts of justice,” but Peace, the angel Shalom responds “do not create them, they will be full of strife.” So what did God do in this tale? The Holy One took the angel Truth, emet, and casts them to the ground, deep into the earth. The story reminds us, then, that Truth does not live in heaven, but exists within our grasp here on earth, ready to be found by persistent, patient humans who would dig it up, and help it to grow and flourish.
Sometimes truth remains hidden. Our knowledge is limited, yes, and new information can (and should) change what we previously thought of as truth or fact. Just ask Galileo, who’s commitment to truth in the 17th century eventually caused the entire world to recognize that the earth is not in fact at the center of our solar system. But the limitations to our knowledge should prompt us to keep digging, to keep pursuing truth as best as we can know it. After all, we human beings are the inheritors of our mythical ancestor Eve, who ate from the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil and whose eyes opened with knowledge and wisdom. She bit the fruit, she tasted its power, and today we follow in her footsteps. We too have the capacity to pursue truth, to discern fact from fiction, and build our world of compassion from a foundation of truth.
So how do we bring about a world where, as the psalmist says, “truth will grow from the ground?”
We work together. We speak out for the truth and its role in our lives and the life of our society. We build strength in our numbers. We question the world around us and use our rational faculties to test our observations. We do not rely on my individual senses, or yours, but on scientific processes that help us make sense of our world.
This will take strength and courage. It requires that we have the strength to question our own knowledge, our biases, our bubbles. And it requires we have the courage to speak out when facts are clear. It requires us to cultivate a measure of both humility and hubris. Humility in the face of our limitations; wisdom to remember that perception and reality do not always align perfectly. And hubris to declare that there are such things as facts—that our climate is changing, that lies are lies, and that we can hold ourselves and our leaders accountable to truth.
Upon hearing the news of a person’s death, one traditional response is “Baruch Dayan HaEmet – Blessed is the Judge of Truth.” We say these words, at least in part, as a recognition of the ultimate truth: all life comes to an end. This season brings that particular truth into stark perspective. This blessing typically refers to God, our Master of all Truth. But in this era of Truth Decay, as we engage in the work of teshuvah, of returning to our truest selves and aspiring to be like the Holy One, I think we should reclaim this blessing for one another.
“Blessed is the judge of truth.” Blessed are each of you when you seek out and discern what is true. Blessed are each of us when we question our own assumptions and biases. Blessed are all who refuse to allow themselves and others to be manipulated by misinformation, doubt and uncertainty into decisions that harm others, and damage our world. “Blessed is the judge of truth.” Blessed are you when you report fake news stories in your social media feeds, and when you call out a friend for posting an inflammatory, click-bait article written 10 months ago as if it were news. Blessed are we all when we hold our politicians, our journalists, and ourselves to account, on every side of the aisle, demanding that they speak the truth.
May the words we speak in this new year create a world of truth. May we celebrate all who have the strength and courage to seek truth and defend it. May we have that strength, and courage, as we fight Truth Decay together. And may we find ways to restore the path of truth in our lives, our society, and our world.
Wed, November 29 2023 16 Kislev 5784