To Tell the Truth

Rosh Hashanah Day 2
10.04.2016

In the movie, Florence Foster Jenkins, Meryl Streep plays a wealthy New York City socialite who founded the Verdi Club to celebrate a love for opera. As a philanthropist, Jenkins did a lot of good supporting the arts in New York. But, that’s not what she was famous for.

Florence was not content to support music. She wanted to be a singer herself. The problem was she could not sing. But, that did not deter Florence. Over a period of many years, she surrounded herself with people who were willing to lie to her and tell her she had musical talent, chief among them, her husband, St.Clair Bayfield.

It’s not entirely clear why so many people were in on this lie, but one reason was that Florence Jenkins had money. So her so-called friends, her husband, her voice coach and many would be recipients of her largesse seemed willing to tell her what she wanted to hear, so they could take advantage of her. This seemed the height of cruelty.

But, Meryl Streep plays Florence Jenkins as having a quality of childlike innocence. And, you can see why her husband, in spite of his own imperfections, seems to have genuine affection for her, and he is touched by her innocence and tries so hard to shield her from the truth.

When Florence sets her mind on performing at Carnegie hall, her husband tries to dissuade her. The truth is bound to come out. But, in the end, when he realizes she is determined to go ahead anyway, he does his very best to protect her. He tries to control the guest list. He buys up all the bad newspaper reviews the next morning and throws them in the garbage.

There is a moment during Florence’s Carnegie concert that people begin to laugh at her, and she is devastated. So, on the one hand, maybe that devastation could have been avoided if her closest friends had pressed the painful truth on Florence earlier. But, on the other hand, the art of this film is that it gets us to question whether telling the truth should always be our highest value. Because, there was a moment in the film when it took more courage and compassion for her husband to protect Florence from the truth and to risk ridicule for himself than it did to be honest with her.

The search for the truth is the foundation stone of our Tradition. Judaism came into the world to rid the world of false ideas. The prophets ridicule idolatry. Abraham smashes up his father’s idol shop. The Torah outlaws witchcraft. It bans astrology. It condemns superstition.

And, even in our tolerant society, we do understand that some false ideas can be very dangerous. The Salem witch trials were based on false beliefs. The belief that sleeping with a virgin will cure AIDS is a very dangerous lie. And, there are still millions of people in the world who believe that Israel, and the Jews, and America conspired to destroy the World Trade Center. No one could deny that this belief has negative consequences.

As we well know, honesty is at the heart of this year’s presidential election. The American public is up in arms against dishonesty in politics. A few weeks ago, Kate McKinnon playing Hilary Clinton on Saturday Night Live introduced herself by saying: “Good evening. I’m Hilary Clinton. And, I hope you like the version of myself that my campaign staff has arranged for tonight.”

Many Americans are saying: “We want a straight talker. We want a leader who is authentic. We want a leader who speaks the truth from his heart, who is not afraid to tell us what is on his mind. We’re tired of political correctness. We don’t want a practiced speech, a speech that is carefully calibrated to tell us what we want to hear.  Don’t be afraid of hurting our feelings. Offend us, if you will. But tell us the truth.”

So, today, I hope you will not be offended if I speak against the truth. I know I am a rabbi, and that our tradition is founded upon truth. But, today, I am going to speak against honesty. Today I’d like to speak of three Biblical heroes who pulled their punches, who did not tell the whole truth—and they were right not to.

Let’s begin with Joseph’s dream—you know, the one where the sun, the moon and the eleven stars were all bowing down to him. The dream was transparent. It was clear that Joseph thought he was entitled to be the leader of his family, even of his older brothers and father.

Why did Joseph tell this dream to his family? What was he thinking? Didn’t he have a sense of how they would react? But, Joseph was an honest guy. He didn’t believe in hiding his true feelings. This was how he felt. Why shouldn’t he share it?

Of course, when Joseph told this dream to his father and his brothers, they went ballistic. Jacob went crazy. He said, “Ma ha’chalom ha-zeh asher chalamta! Are you out of your mind, Joseph? Do you think your father and mother and your brothers are going to bow down to you?”

So, it looks as if Jacob and the brothers are equally angry. But, then, the Torah says something very interesting. It says: ‘va’y’kanu vo echav’/Joseph’s brothers continued to be jealous of him, however, ‘v’aviv shamar et ha’davar/but Jacob kept this dream in mind.

And, one of the commentators says that Jacob’s angry rebuke of Joseph was for show. It did not reflect his true feelings. He felt that as a father he had to show fairness to all of his sons. So, publicly, he chastised Joseph for his arrogance. But, inside, he had the feeling there was something to this dream.

One of the great strengths of Jacob was that he had a filter. He didn’t just react. As a leader, he understood the power of his words to shape the future of his family. Unlike his hotheaded sons. Joseph and his brothers did not hide their contempt for each other. The result was family tragedy—a brother sold into slavery, a father devastated by the loss of his son.

And, this was a family torn apart until they learned to stop sharing their first impulse. When the brothers come down to Egypt, Joseph hides his true identity. He wisely bides his time. His first impulse would have been to kill them all.

And, Judah, the leader of the brothers, also learns that his first impulse is not always correct. When his daughter in law Tamar is pregnant, he is outraged, and he orders her executed. Then, he discovers that he is the culprit, and that outrage is a very satisfying emotion, but it can also be very destructive. It’s only when the sons learn to be more like their father, less authentic, more circumspect, that peace is restored to this very troubled family.

Our problem today is that we are confusing honesty with lack of impulse control. Time Magazine recently ran an article on internet harassment. Internet trolls were furious that the latest redo of Ghostbusters starred four women instead of men, so they started harassing Leslie Jones, the film’s black co-star, on Twitter. They called her a black dude, they used gay and racial slurs, and they threatened to cut off her head.

Because of Leslie Jones’ harassment, alt-right leader Milo Yiannopoulos  was permanently banned from Twitter. But Yiannopoulos who has been speaking at college campuses defended himself.  He said: “the space we’re making for others to be bolder in their speech is some of the most important work being done today. The trolls are the only people telling the truth.”

But, this is not honesty. It’s just cruelty. In 2012, after feminist Anita Sarkeesian started a campaign to against misogyny in video games, she received bomb threats, rape threats and an unwanted starring role in a video game called Beat Up Anita Sarkeesian.

In June of this year, Jonathan Weisman, the deputy Washington editor of the New York Times, quit Twitter, on which he had nearly 35,000 followers, after a barrage of anti-Semitic messages. At the end of July, feminist writer Jessica Valenti said she was leaving social media after receiving a rape threat against her daughter, who is 5 years old.

It would be comforting to believe that this kind of cruel behavior is only being perpetrated by a small number of deviant people.  But, Professor Whitney Philips says “nothing could be further than the truth…these are mostly normal people. This kind of behavior is becoming part of our culture, and the greatest proof is that it’s now coming from the top.

When a candidate for the leadership of the free world publicly calls a woman’s face ugly and mocks a reporter with physical disabilities, this is not honesty. It’s just cruelty. And, cruelty is not refreshing. Cruelty is not charming or disarming. And, when cruelty becomes a virtue to be admired in our most important leaders, what does that say to the rest of us?

We seem unable to be sensible about honesty. We swing between two extremes. On the one hand we call people honest when in reality, they just lack decency. They lack the kind of filter that is necessary in any civilized society. On the other extreme, we are so terrified of hurting someone’s feelings or being on the wrong side of an issue, that we dare not express any opinion that might offend.

Yet, these two extremes might not be as contradictory as they appear. The irony of people who are exceedingly honest is that they tend to be very thin skinned. We see this in the story of Esther. Esther was a person who did not tell the whole truth. She hid her Jewish identity when she applied for the job of queen of the Persian empire. Esther’s very name means ‘hidden.’ For Esther there is more to her than appears on the surface.

Esther’s husband, King Achashverosh is exactly the opposite. There is no deeper layer to him, not because he is honest, but because he is superficial. For the king, everything was about the surface. He was obsessed with appearances. He showed off his material wealth to the whole kingdom. He had to prove to his comrades that his first wife Vashti was the most beautiful of all the women. When she pushes back, he gets huffy. After all, he is the king. He is entitled.

Esther is the opposite. She is restrained. She is modest. When she is brought to the king’s palace she asks for less than what she is entitled to. She is the opposite of entitlement.

Here’s the thing about entitled people. They are often hypersensitive about their own dignity. And when they are offended, they respond viciously. There is no sense of proportion. There is no ability to distinguish between what in today’s world would be called a micro-aggression and a macro-aggression. So, when Achashverosh thinks that Haman is flirting with his woman, he orders him executed. The fact that Haman wanted to commit genocide against an innocent people seems almost incidental to the king.

This has become a new standard in our world. Radical Muslim groups are hypersensitive to perceived slights to Mohammed. And, they are willing to kill to defend their honor. But, these same groups daily say the most vicious things about Israel and about the Jewish people. And, they see no irony there.

But, it’s not only out there. It’s in our own country. The New York Times recently ran an article on guidelines for political correctness at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts. Campus guidelines warn about these microaggressions, subtle forms of insults that might not seem like insults at all. Here are some examples of microaggressions to be avoided on campus:

  • Don’t ask an Asian student you don’t know for help with your math homework, because you might unwittingly be stereotyping him
  • Don’t say ‘you guys’ to a group of men and women, because you are excluding the women.

Here is an example of an environmental micro-aggression:

  • On your first day of class, you enter the chemistry building and all of the pictures on the wall are scientists who are white and male.

Now there is also something called a ‘micro-invalidation.’ You shouldn’t say “Everyone can succeed in this society if they work hard enough.” That comment suggests that race plays a minor role in life’s outcomes.

In fact, the very term ‘politically correct’ is itself a micro-aggression because it implies that people who are concerned about micro-aggressions are being overly sensitive.

Now I’m not saying there is no validity at all to these sensitivities. In some ways, we should be grateful for the micro-aggression movement. It’s a sign of how much progress we’ve made. If the worst thing that someone can say about our society is that sometimes people ask Asian people to help them with their homework, well then, we’ve come a long way from the lynchings and house bombings of the 1960’s.

Unfortunately, that’s not the way it works. It seems like the students most sensitive to micro-aggressions against themselves are actually most likely to commit macro-aggressions against other people. You can go online and see a video of a Yale student screaming at a professor, calling him disgusting, demanding that he be fired, and accusing him of creating an unsafe environment on campus, basically because he dared not to agree with her.

For these students, there is no sense of proportion. There is no ability to distinguish between a person who is critical of the culture of political correctness and the person who would demand separate lunch counters for whites and blacks. It’s all the same. And, many of these students are the first to criticize Israel using the most incendiary language, language that makes micro-aggressions look like a walk in the park.

But, that does not excuse the extremism of so many people whose chief cause is to counter political correctness. All too often, the response to hyper-sensitivity is not honest speech, but crude speech, and often, blatantly racist speech that masquerades as honesty and bravery.

Of course, we didn’t invent crassness in the year 2016. It has a deep history. There is a wonderful story about Giuseppe Verdi, the great composer of opera. In 1872, shortly after Aida was shown in Parma, Italy, Verdi received a letter from a man named Prospero Brettani. In this letter Brettani described how he had been very excited about seeing Aida , but when he saw it he was disappointed. However, he noticed everyone else seemed to love it, so he tried again.

After seeing the opera a second time, he was convinced it was terrible and he predicted that Aida would soon “be confined to the dust bin of history.” Now comes the best part. Brettani writes that he wants Verdi to compensate him for wasting his time on such a worthless opera—to the tune of 32 lira. That would cover his round trip railroad ticket, the price of the theater ticket, and his dinner.

Here’s what Verdi did. He directed his secretary to send 27 lira to Mr. Brettani—minus the cost of his dinner—that was a little too much—provided that Brettani gave him a written declaration that he would never attend another Verdi opera. Then Verdi published Brettani’s letter in all the Italian newspapers and with Brettani’s address. Well, you can imagine the outraged response of Verdi’s beloved fans.

So, what happened here? Mr. Brettani, no doubt, would claim that he was simply being honest. He was expressing his true feelings. But, this is not honesty. This is just boorishness. It’s rudeness. And, in our society today, we’re quickly losing the ability to tell the difference.

There must be a better way. How do we get back to a sensible honesty?  How do we find the humane space between hyper-political correctness that borders on censorship and an unfiltered speech that often offends to the point of cruelty?

On Rosh Hashanah, we read about Abraham. Abraham embodied the balance we’re looking for. Abraham was not afraid to speak truth to power. When God wanted to destroy Sodom and Amorah, Abraham speaks truth to God. He says, “God this isn’t right. This isn’t you.” And, Abraham does it with passion. He uses strong language ‘Chalilah lecha’ he says. How dare you!

And, yet at the same time, Abraham manages to convey to God that he is speaking these words out of love. He means no disrespect. He is only trying to do the right thing, as God has taught him.

This very same Abraham in today’s Torah reading is confronted by his son Isaac, who is destined for sacrifice on Mount Moriah, and Isaac says to his father, Avi, father, hinei ha’esh v’ha’etzim, v’ayeh ha’she l’olah. I see the wood and the matches. But, where is the sheep for the sacrifice?

And, Abraham is not completely honest. He doesn’t say: “I hate to break it to you, kid. But, you are the sacrifice.” He doesn’t say that. He says: Elohim yireh lo ha’she beni/God will provide the lamb, my son. This isn’t exactly a lie. Maybe Abraham is hoping against hope it will happen. But, it’s certainly not the whole truth. And, we know that Abraham is not a person who is afraid to tell the truth. But, Abraham also understands that there is a time to tell the unvarnished truth, and there is a time to filter the truth because compassion demands it.

A person who beautifully exemplified this quality of Abraham was Elie Wiesel, zichrono livracha, who passed away this year. I encourage all of us to reread Elie Wiesel’s speech to President Reagan when Reagan was planning to visit Bitburg and pay homage to a cemetery where Nazi SS officers were buried.

Wiesel began his speech by praising the president for being a friend of the Jewish people. He said he believed the president didn’t know initially that there were SS graves at Bitberg. But, “now that we all know,” said Wiesel,

May I, Mr. President, if it’s possible at all, implore you to do something else, to find a way, to find another way, another site. That place, Mr. President, is not your place. Your place is with the victims of the SS.

This is how it’s done. You know, sometimes people worry—if we are too civil, if we are too polite, we won’t be able to convey a sense of urgency when it is really needed. But, Wiesel showed us this isn’t true. I heard Wiesel speak many times. Sometimes he spoke so softly that the audience had to lean forward and strain to hear him. There was no arrogance about him. But, there was no mistaking the force of his message. His words were searing. And, they went straight to the heart.

We need to re-learn how to speak like that. We need a new ethics of honesty. Liel Liebovitz addresses college students on campus, and he encourages them to engage, but to engage in a new way. He says

If they yell about income inequality, you must toil to find a path to justice without burning the house down. If they sneer at gender disparity, you must work to heal the union of men and women without strangling romance with the deadening language of power and legalese. If they scoff at racial unease, strive to bring the races together, not to give them further reason to observe each other with distrust.

That shouldn’t be an unattainable goal. A few weeks ago, our own Herb Weissbaum did a piece on KOMO on the anti-Israel platform of the Black Lives Matter movement. His guests were Keith Dvorchik, Federation president and a local leader of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Keith made it very clear that he was not challenging the validity of the concerns of the Black Lives Matter movement. He said by inserting the anti-Israel platform it actually distracted attention from the main focus of the movement which was to eliminate racist bias from police work. And, Herb pointed out the inconsistency of singling out Israel alone of all the nations for human rights criticism. This was a beautiful example of the kind of honest, nuanced and compassionate discourse that has so often been missing in our society.

We haven’t figured out a way to have an honest and compassionate conversation with the Muslim community, in America or globally. Either the conversation is crude and aggressive and we are trashing Muslims and calling them all terrorists. Or, the conversation is politically correct to the point of naivetee, and we are not able to speak honestly about concerns which are real and genuine.

We need a conversation which is both honest and compassionate. The more we avoid it, the more likely it is that what we will get is more crudeness and bullying, because that will be seen as the only alternative to an overly polite society.

It is not easy to maintain this balance. We are now going into our fifth year of Muslim-Jewish dialogue in our own congregation. As the years pass, and we get to know each other better, more trust develops. That makes it more likely that even when we are speaking most honestly and most critically, we will be aware that we are speaking to real people who we like and who we do not want to drive away.

Maimonides taught that when we are giving criticism, we need to check ourselves to be sure that our only motivation is that we do not want our friend to be denied their share in the world to come. If we are convinced that our motive is that pure—that we are not speaking out of anger, or contempt,—then we can offer criticism.

It’s a high standard, but it’s one worth shooting for. It’s the standard of Abraham. It’s the standard of Jacob and Esther.  It’s the standard of Elie Wiesel. It’s a standard we should hold our national leaders to, especially those who aspire to the highest office in the land.

But, it’s a standard, first and foremost, that we should hold ourselves, too. We don’t need to be clueless. But, we do need to be humane. Sometimes, it takes courage to speak our mind. And, sometimes it takes just as much courage and compassion to hold our tongue.

May God help us to understand the difference this year. And, in choosing our national leaders, may we send a message that we value honesty, but not cruelty, passion without bluster, and truth, of course—but always, always with compassion.