Rosh Hashanah and Truth

Jewish ritual By Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg 18th Sep 2017

From time to time I have an ‘How did I fail to see that until now’ experience. There’s a turning I never took, a tree I never properly took note of in a garden I’ve walked past a hundred times.

One such garden is the Machzor, the High Holyday prayer book, and the feature I keep noticing this year is just one simple word: emet, truth.

It appears three times in a single sentence in the unique blessing in the middle of the Rosh Hashanah Amidah prayer: ‘Purify our hearts to serve you in truth, for you are a God of truth, and your word is truth and established forever’. The last clause is repeated in the Kiddush for Rosh Hashanah evening.

The word comes again, and with more force, in the disturbing Unetaneh Tokef meditation on God’s infinite power and our uncertain destiny: ‘You, God, dwell on your throne in truth; it is the truth that you are judge and arbiter’.

These emphatic references draw attention to the mentions of the term in the daily prayers, which habit often dulls us into failing to regard:

One should be in awe of God always, in private as well as in public, acknowledging the truth and telling the truth in one’s heart. Birkot Hashachar: the daily Morning Blessings

Why the call for truth seems so especially significant this year sadly requires no explanation.

The editors of the prayer book no doubt had their own contemporary versions of ‘alternative facts’, fake ‘truths’ which suited the teller, and distorted narratives. The ancient and mediaeval worlds were scarcely free from prejudices, lies, egotism and tyranny. Amidst the political and military turmoil of conflicting regional powers, each pursuing their own self-interest, religion was a powerful call to be mindful of the ultimate realities, the eternal values of truth and integrity, and the everlasting God before whom all mortals passed in true and ultimate judgement.

Perhaps the Enlightenment, with its ideals of freedom, democracy and critical debate, and its central discipline of science and the rigorous pursuit of verifiable objective truth, allowed us to think for a while that honesty and integrity were, even if often honoured in the breach, an inalienable part of public life.

Today, this is not something to be taken for granted. Chapter 10 of Timothy Snyder’s thin but brilliantly forceful 2017 book,On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, is entitled ‘Believe in Truth’:

To abandon facts is to abandon freedom…If nothing is true, then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights.

Last month I had the privilege of interviewing Lawrence Rees about his recently published history: The Holocaust.It is the contemporary relevance which is also so frightening, he told me. He exemplified the point by explaining that when in early 1938 the Chancellor of Austria, Kurt Schussnigg, met Hitler, he imagined he would be able to refute the untruths he knew he was about to hear from the ‘Fuehrer’. But the bombardment of falsehood was so torrential that he found himself helplessly unable to contradict any of it. Rees didn’t need to spell out the warnings for today.

Perhaps more blatantly than in any other decade since Hitler and Stalin, we inhabit once again an echoing world of fake truths, false facts and self-serving untruths. Lying seems to have shed its shame.

The Rosh Hashanah prayer book calls us powerfully home to truth, truth in our own hearts and truth before the absolute.

This demand for truthfulness does not stand alone, as an isolated virtue. It is part of a perspective on life which is not relativist and which upholds the non-negotiable centrality of certain key, enduring ‘truths’. We may not choose to understand these in the theological terms in which they are expressed in the liturgy, but I expect they still command our assent.

Our deeds matter. They impact on those around us, and on the greater whole of life itself, for which we are inescapably responsible. The consequences of our words and actions cannot be evaded; we are therefore always answerable, before each other and before God. We cannot hide. ‘Truth will out,’ sooner or later. Who we are will become known.

This does not make truth an enemy to be evaded, as if we were children desperate to avoid getting caught. Truth is our ally and friend.

Truth demands that we are honest with ourselves in our hearts; it requires us to purify our conscience and mind. It directs us on the path of honesty and integrity, teaching us to be just and trustworthy in all our relationships and dealings. It humbles us. It makes us mindful of the greater life of society, humanity, nature, environment, God, of which we are a tiny but significant part and to which we are bound in service.

Rosh Hashanah calls us home to truth, insisting, even in this post-fact world, that we stand before the ‘God of truth, whose word is truth’. The need to listen has rarely been so urgent.

Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg is the Rabbi of New North London Synagogue and Senior Rabbi of Masorti Judaism.

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