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Did That Really Happen?

ben-carsonWell, it was probably inevitable.  Dr. Ben Carson, quintessential political outsider and man of integrity, has been caught in a … well, let’s call it a modest inaccuracy for the time being.  The inspirational narrative of his turning down a full scholarship to West Point proved somewhat less dramatic:  at best, he was encouraged to attend West Point and chose otherwise.

This may have been an honest misstatement or trick of memory decades after the fact.  It certainly can’t be compared to claims of having been shot down in a helicopter or having had to duck under sniper fire, and if it doesn’t emerge as part of a pattern of prevarication then the doctor can be forgiven.

It does demonstrate, however, how careful we should be with our words, especially in this day and age when everything is recorded and almost everything can be verified or disproven.

It’s a topic I address in this essay, published by Jewish World Review back in 2010.

Having circled the globe one and a half times before finding my way to Torah observance, having lived for nine years in Israel and one year in Hungary, having taught adolescents for nigh on two decades, it’s only natural that I have more than a few stories to tell. Consequently, it never fails to discomfit me when friends or neighbors respond to my essays by asking:

“Did that really happen?”

Are my anecdotes so truly unbelievable? After all, I never claimed to have flown to the moon on gossamer wings, to have crossed the Alps with Hannibal and his elephants, or to have led the attack against Custer’s army at Little Big Horn. No, I’ve merely looked to pluck useful insights from slightly quirky encounters and bring to light the Torah wisdom that resides within myriad aspects of the human condition.

12d8aa967e8ef907e5f1f4932db629feAnd so I’ve penned essays about my white fedora, which fellow travelers reported noticing as our paths crisscrossed throughout Europe; about the Israeli gentlemen who rebuked me in an elevator for wearing an earring while sporting tzitzis, the fringed tassels worn over the belt line according to Torah law; and about the ragged man who stopped in his tracks on the streets of Budapest, apparently overwhelmed and overjoyed to discover a religious Jew having survived the travails of the Holocaust and assimilation; these, together with assorted episodes from my high school class room.

“I loved your article,” an acquaintance will say. And then, with alarming frequency: “Did that really happen?”

I even get it from my mother.

To be honest, I can’t say that I’m surprised. After all, narrative accuracy has seen its market value tumble over the years. As candidate for president, John Kerry described how Christmas in Cambodia was “seared in his memory.” A stirring narrative, aside from the fact that he wasn’t actually there. In the Democratic primary four years later, Hillary Clinton reported that her parents had named her in honor of Sir Edmund Hillary — an impressive feat of prescience, since Sir Edmund had not conquered Mount Everest until five years after Ms. Clinton was born and named. Even Ronald Reagan, although never caught embellishing his own history, nevertheless brought tears to the eyes of his audiences with poignant war stories that turned out to be scenes from old movies.

Popular motion pictures that are “based on” or “inspired by” true stories often undergo such embellishment that they emerge bearing little resemblance to the events they claim to portray. Tonight Show host Jay Leno, in his autobiography, reportedly included anecdotes that actually happened to other people, but explained that he had permission to use one story, and that he had paid for the right to use the other.

As in so many cases, the Torah prohibition against speaking untruths extends far beyond the simple meaning of the words. MiDavar sheker tirchak translates, simultaneously, as “Distance yourself from a false word” and as “Distance yourself from a false thing.” From the perspective of Jewish philosophy, words are not mere symbols or labels; they possess a substance and a reality all their own. Consider how a cruel word can inflict more pain than a sharp blow between the eyes, or how a well-placed compliment can produce more pleasure than the sweetest dessert.

When does a word or a thing become false? In principle, the slightest embellishment or exaggeration constitutes a violation of Torah values, if not Torah law. If one is uncertain about the details of a story, it is easy enough to add “I think” or “something like” to one’s narrative. That small concession to veracity helps us preserve our respect for the lines between truth and falsehood — lines that grow increasingly blurred amidst the moral confusion of our generation.

the-truth-shall-set-you-freeThe Hebrew word emes, commonly translated as truth, is formed by the three letters that come, in sequence, at the very beginning, the precise middle, and the very end of the Hebrew alphabet. Before we can be certain that anything is true, we must have a sufficiently broad perspective; we must have all the information, accurately and in context; and we must have a clear understanding of the propriety of revealing that information and the consequences of doing so. Only then is it emes.

Consequently, sometimes even absolute truth may be considered false. In the case of malicious gossip, the accuracy of the information may result in harm even worse than slander by damaging relationships that would have been secure against rumor or innuendo. Similarly, details taken out of context, although factual, often imply conclusions that have no bearing on reality. They may be true, but they are not emes.

The distinction between words that are true and words that are emes easily leads us onto thin moral ice. What about “white lies” intended to spare the feelings of others, or “harmless” untruths meant to warm another person’s heart?

At first glance, Torah tradition seems to endorse such ideas. The sages teach that Aaron, the High Priest, upon discovering that two friends had come to quarrel, ran back and forth reporting to each how sorry the other was and how desperately he longed for reconciliation, until the two friends resolved their dispute and became friends once again. The same sages tell us to always call a bride beautiful, no matter what she actually looks like.

On deeper reflection, however, is it not true that true friends, divided by conflict, miss the relationship they once had and deeply long to restore their friendship? And is it not similarly true that every bride glows with an inner beauty projected at the moment of her greatest joy, and that she is truly beautiful in the eyes of her bridegroom? If so, is it not also true that the sages were offering us a profound lesson in how to interpret human nature?

Indeed, even if there may be cases that require us to speak some literal untruth to protect another person’s physical, mental, or spiritual welfare, such cases are few and far between. If we are honest with ourselves, we will concede that most of us will have rare occasion to bend or break the truth.

Perhaps, if we all exert more effort to ensure that all our words are words of emes, we will not find ourselves suspicious of those stories of little miracles and inspirational irony that can make our eyes sparkle and our hearts swell. And if a more profound commitment to honesty helps us become less cynical and more easily inspired, then what do we really have to lose?


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