Just as the liturgy of the High Holydays emphasises life and love, so it focuses on integrity and truth. We are called to speak truth before the God of truth.
I’m experiencing the side-stepping of truth in certain fields of public discourse as deeply frightening. ‘To abandon facts is to abandon freedom’ wrote Timothy Snyder in On Tyranny; ‘’if nothing is true, then no one can criticize power.’ (p. 65)
Judaism holds as self-evident not only certain specific truths, – the importance of life, liberty and responsibility, – but, most significantly, the basic proposition that there is such a thing as truth. There are different kinds of truth, including many shades of subjective ‘truth’ relative to the perspective of the beholder. But this does not contradict the central importance of truthfulness, or that there exist such things as falsehood, lying and denial. Hence the Torah commands us to keep far from false matters, search truth out, acquire truth and speak truth in the heart.
Underlying this commitment to truthfulness is the belief that we are ultimately accountable. That is how Rashi explains the Torah’s injunction to ‘fear your God’: know that even where there are no human witnesses there is One who knows.
I am not sure where this ‘One’ is. Sometimes the ‘One’ is my own conscience, when I realise that I’ve been telling that most subtle and intimate of half-truths, or half deceits, – to myself about myself. At other times, the ‘One’ is in the mind of my friend or interlocuter, expecting, adjuring me to, speak honestly. Often my sense is vaguer, that somehow life reads me, has the measure of my heart and deeds, summons me to integrity.
I fear that without such a sense of answerability we are adrift in a sea of chaos and violence, that, again in Snyder’s words, ‘Post-truth is pre-fascism’. That is why this season when we are called to account is so profoundly important, not just to Jews, but to civilisation itself, even if we do not believe in God in any way at all, but that the locus of truth lies is the human heart and conscience.
For it is in the name of truth that we must challenge lies, evasion and the suppression of evidence out of self-interest; acknowledging, of course, that we too may be mistaken and that truth does not belong to us, but that we must belong with truth. Only thus can we face the challenges before us with integrity and hope: how to live with ourselves and each other in a world able to sustain the rich and beautiful diversity of life. We have no time to waste on disingenuity and denial.
Truth is not the only quality we need. ‘Truth and peace have fallen in love,’ reads the leader’s meditation, ‘Righteousness, justice and compassion as well as truth accompany you’. I find it easier to write about kindness, peace, healing and beauty. But they have no basis, are rooted in no sustaining ground, without truth. That’s what frightens me, and what makes our thoughts, prayers and resolve so important at this season.