by Shaul Magid
Are we liars? Most of us will say we are not. We aspire to be truth tellers. But aspirations are different than behaviors. There is an old Hungarian Jewish saying that defines Antisemites: “Antisemites are those that hate Jews more than usual.” Can we say something similar about liars? Liars are those who lie more than usual, those who lie habitually, or perhaps those who do so without remorse. While we aspire to tell the truth, there are all kinds of reasons why we don’t. And all sorts of excuses we make in order for those reasons to seem plausible. That doesn’t make us liars. It makes us aspiring truth tellers who periodically lie. Liars are those who lie more than usual.
Below I examine what happens to the lies of the truth teller, the lies that haunt the truth we aspire to uphold. The lies we tell may be lies of the truth teller, but those lies do not disappear. The fact that they are viewed as truth, by us and those we tell them to, make them even more precarious and, perhaps, more damaging.
I used to daven (pray) regularly in a small Hasidic shul (synagogue) in Boro Park Brooklyn. The shul was near the house where I was living with five other young baalei teshuva (newly religious) like myself. The rabbi was a gentle soul, tall and statuesque. He lived in a small apartment one flight up with his family where he used to invite us occasionally for Shabbat meals.
One unremarkable afternoon after the repetition of the silent prayer we were saying tahanun (supplication prayers) that include, according to Hasidic custom, the confession that begins “ashamu, bagadnu, gazalnu…” (“we are guilty, we have transgressed, we have stolen”) lightly beating our chests as we were taught. The rabbi walked up to my friend from behind and whispered in his ear, “Come on, Mordecai, you never really stole anything.” It was a confusing moment. The rabbi was a pleasant yet serious man not known for frivolity. He never mentioned the incident again and we never worked up the courage to confront him. In our youthful pious fervor we were easily drawn to every small detail of what we heard and what we did. Were we really guilty of the things we were confessing? Were we telling the truth?
Not surprisingly, he didn’t whisper, “Come on, Mordecai, you never really lied.” The reason is obvious. Of course Mordecai lied. We all lie in all kinds of ways (yes, I like your brisket; sure, you look good in that dress; I really enjoyed reading your essay!). We all exaggerate, stretch or bend the truth, or lie by omission. Such ways of speaking have become requisite for our participation in social life, a cultural etiquette of deception. People who say what they think no matter what are considered insufficiently socialized, maladroit. So while we confess “we have lied,” as if to say “and we will lie no more,” we are, in some way, already lying. Such a confession is a type of lie unless, of course, we don’t really mean it when we say it. Then it might be the truth.
When I taught at the Jewish Theological Seminary in NYC I used to attend the morning minyan in the main sanctuary there. The back window looks out onto the 1/9 train as it ascends from underground to travel above ground through Harlem. I used to put my tefillin (phylacteries) on in that spot overlooking the brick wall where the train comes over ground, setting them on the ledge of the window. One day as I was tying my tefillin around my arm I happened to notice some graffiti on the stone wall surrounding the tracks. The graffiti was a simple five word phrase, “the truth is a lie.” Well, I thought as I adjusted my tefillin, that’s a humbling thing to think about as one wears words of Torah on one’s arm and head. For a number of years I made sure that I put my tefillin on in that very spot so I could be reminded of those words, “the truth is a lie.” As one who trained rabbis in a tradition that regularly declares, “Moshe is truth and his Torah is truth,” it was a welcome if somewhat painful reminder for me, at the very least, enough to break any spell of comfort or certainty on my part.
In David Grossman’s novel To the End of the Land, the life of the main character, Ora, is a web of lies, each one to protect herself, her family, and her lover. Yet when she is forced to lie for someone else, she becomes distraught and self-righteous. On a rainy winter evening she summons her Arab driver Sami to drive her to Tel Aviv to meet her ex-lover, a now destitute and broken man named Avrum. She will try to convince him to walk with her in the Galilee hills until her son returns safely from Lebanon. She has this idea that if she is not at home, she cannot be notified by the army of her son’s death and thus he cannot die. Sami picks her up in his taxi with a sick child from his Arab village who needs to get to Jaffa for medical care. Sami has Ora pose as the child’s relative as they pass by Israeli check points. He knows that without Ora he will be stopped and turned back. Ora holds the feverish child and resents Sami for implicating her in such a lie. But she owes Sami for a life of service to her and her family and so she acquiesces. The boy reaches his destination in Jaffa. He and Sami disappear.
But Ora’s lies run far deeper than Sami’s. Sami’s lie is understandable, perhaps. When you are under occupation, powerless, if you don’t lie, you may die. For the powerless lying is often about survival. Ask many of our relatives who lied to gain entry into this country: false documents, hiding illnesses, contrived marriages. Ellis Island was a house of lies. But without them I would not be here. I can only thank my grandparents for lying. But Ora’s lies are different. She hides the fact that her beloved son who she is trying to protect from harm is not the son of her husband but the love child of her and Avram while she was married to his best friend. And she hides the fact that she knows the sordid story of Avram’s capture and torture at the hands of the Egyptians in the Yom Kippur War, an episode that destroyed him as a human being. She knows of it because her husband, Avram’s closest friend, told her and swore her to secrecy. Her life is built on lying to the three most important people in her life: her husband, her son, and her lover. But we can easily say her lies were justified, either to save her son from knowing he is a mamzer (illegitimate child), or saving Avrum from the shame of his knowing she knows of his torture.
Ora claims to exercise a self-righteous lie. She is lying to be true to another, but of course, to the other she is also lying. She reveals her lie to Avrum hoping it will liberate her from the claws of secrecy. That it will set her free. But of course that too is a lie: the truth does not set her free. The more she tells the truth the more despondent she becomes, the more truth she injects into the lie that is her life, the more the lie marches on. Truth is literally suffocating her lie. She realizes by the end that the lie has becomes the truth and the truth, has thus become nothing more than a lie. She cannot rewrite the past. You cannot undo what has become true just because now you tell us it’s a lie. The last scene in the book has Ora sitting in a crevasse of a rock in the hills outside Jerusalem, perhaps gesturing to Song of Songs 2:14, “Oh my dove in the crevasse of the rocks, hidden by the cliff, Let me see your face, let me hear your voice.” As she sits there, nothing resolved, not knowing the fate of her son, not knowing what she will return to when or if, she return home, to her home of lies, she sadly, as if in resignation quietly says, “how thin is the crust of the earth.” With that the books ends. The rock, in Hebrew zur, is of course a reference to God, to truth, as the Psalmist says, “God is my rock and my savior.”
Grossman knows exactly what he is doing. In some way, this is Israel’s plight, maybe the plight of the Jews, maybe the plight of all humanity. We tell lies to get at the truth. We tell lies to make something true because the truth is too hard to bear. We tell lies to save our people, our story, to justify our existence. We tell lies to protect our children, our parents, ourselves. We tell ourselves when we lie to our children about our past, “Those were different times.” Were they? How so? Yes, times are always different, as much as they are always the same. We do aspire to be truth tellers. Not everything is a lie, but the truths we tell and lives we live contain small lies, thin lies, thin like the crust of the earth. We sit on the rock of our truths—or is it the rock of our lies—but, like Ora, in quiet moments we too realize, “how thin is the crust of the earth.” The truths we sit on are thin, made more so by the lies included therein.
This is an abbreviated adaptation of a sermon delivered at the Fire Island Synagogue, Fire Island, NY, on Yom Kippur Eve 2011