Through a Mussar Lens: To Defend Truth, an Obligation to Rebuke
There has been no greater victim of recent events in public discourse than truth.
There is a midrash (Genesis Rabbah 8:5) that tells of God “casting truth to the ground,” and it seems that our contemporary leaders have been “walking in God’s way.” Truth has been ground under the heel of fake news, lies, anti-science, partial facts and a general disregard for what is verifiable. The most shocking (and saddest) recognition of the desecration of truth is the Oxford Dictionary declaring “post-truth” as its Word of the Year for 2016—an adjective defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”
Continuing with our series on “public virtues” that we began last month, we will focus now on truth (emet) as a Jewish value that currently needs our support.
The Jewish approach to truth is not self-evident. On the one hand, truth is praised. In the Talmud we read that: “Truth is the seal of God” (Yoma 69b). In Pirkei Avot (1:18) Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel calls truth a foundation of the world: “The world stands on three things: on judgment, on truth and on peace.”
Yet truth is not seen to be hard and objective. Rather, it is situational. That distinction comes up in a classic argument between the sages Hillel and Shammai over the well-established mitzvah to gladden a bride and groom.
Shammai takes the position that a bride should be praised only according to her objective personal qualities, while Hillel states that all brides should
be praised as being “beautiful and gracious.” The law follows Hillel, who teaches us that our primary concern should be not for truth per
se but for the impact that our statement will have on another person. Something may be very blemished—
We see the same approach in the perhaps surprising license to lie that we are given in Jewish tradition. There is a very clear principle that “It is permitted to tell an untruth (literally, “to change” the facts) for the sake of peace” (Yevamot 65b).
Here we find the crucial distinction. One is permitted to lie for the sake of peace, but not to gain advantage over someone else, to disparage them with false accusations, to deny facts or to ignore scientific evidence. In other words, Jewish law recognizes that holding to objective truth in all situations is foolish, but the circumstances that warrant deviating from the truth must be for a higher purpose (peace), and can only be sanctioned when the deviation from truth is intended to have a positive impact on another.
That sets the guideline: hew to the truth unless changing the facts will result in a more peaceful world and others will benefit.
But what do we do when we find ourselves confronted by people who blatantly ignore those principles, for whom truth is expendable? In that case, what comes into play is another Jewish practice, which is the obligation we have to rebuke.
Jewish law and contemporary society are at real odds over the issue of rebuking others. General social values stress tolerance, live-and-let-live and
non-involvement. But Jewish law tells us the opposite. It establishes the mitzvah of tochecha (rebuke) and finds a source in the verse:
“Hocheach tocheach et amitecha” (Vayikra / Leviticus 19:17)—
Rebuke is a verbal martial art and a practice that is much needed in a time when truth is being abused. What we get from Jewish sources is the message that we are actually obligated to speak corrective words to those who are trampling truth. Indeed, rebuking others is such a strong obligation that if you are in a position to rebuke and do not do so, Jewish law holds you accountable for the very sin done by the other person.
The principle is clear: when we see wrongdoing being perpetrated, we are obligated to stand up and voice our opposition.
But our rabbis were realists and they recognized that giving negative feedback is actually a very dicey proposition. Rabbi Tarfon observed (Erchin 16b), “I doubt if there is anyone in this generation who is fit to rebuke others.”
There is a parallel problem in people’s difficulty in hearing rebuke. Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah responded to Rabbi Tarfon by saying, “I doubt if there is anyone in this generation who is able to receive rebuke.”
Even way back then it was difficult to find the words to rebuke someone, and no one wanted to hear other people’s criticism. They must have reacted much as we see so commonly today, when people tend either to ignore feedback or to lash out at the person who had the temerity to highlight the error of their ways.
While Jewish law is unequivocal about our obligation to speak up when others are doing wrong, there is awareness of the need to do so skillfully. Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, whose 18th century book Mesilat Yesharim / Path of the Just is a pillar of the Mussar tradition, writes:
How often does a person rebuke sinners at the wrong time, or in the wrong place, so that they pay no attention to what is said! The one who rebukes is thus the cause of their becoming more confirmed in their wickedness, and of their desecrating the name of God by adding rebellion to sin.
Rabbi Luzzatto goes on to say that if you know that your rebuke will be ineffective, your higher obligation is to remain silent. And Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin rules that if the only way a person is capable of giving rebuke is with anger, then that person is relieved of the obligation to rebuke.
There are many other rabbinic rulings that limit or qualify the obligation to rebuke, or provide reasons to forgo rebuke. But we need to be very careful not to excuse ourselves from this obligation too quickly or easily. The general tendency is to be lenient and accepting of others’ speech. It’s an issue of free speech, isn’t it? Yet despite how difficult it is to do effectively, and the risks and even the likelihood of failure sometimes, the commandment to rebuke still stands, and we are obligated.
Defending truth falls under the obligation to rebuke. When falsehood is being used to disadvantage, if not outright hurt, other people, we are individually obligated to be vocal in defense of truth. The challenge our ancestors and our tradition have handed to us is to find ways to be intelligent, sensitive and creative in giving rebuke so it will be heard and have effect. Only wise and thoughtful words spoken without anger, patiently, and with genuine compassion have the potential to open hearts and to direct people away from wrongdoing.
That is our challenge as we pursue the goal of bringing more holiness to the world. When God threw truth to the ground, God proclaimed: “Let truth grow up from the land.” It is we who are entrusted to cultivate and protect truth, from the grassroots up.
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