Suppose you’ve made a golem, a man-shaped figure of clay, and you want to bring it to life. What to do? Just inscribe the Hebrew word emet—truth—on its forehead. The three letters—aleph, mem, tav—make up what the rabbinic sages called “the seal of the Blessed Holy One,” and they should make the golem self-animate. When you’ve had enough, as every creator of a golem has sooner or later, just remove the aleph: The remaining letters spell met, or death, and the golem will revert to clay.
The ability to vivify a golem is just one of many aspects of the word emet, whose multi-layered richness testifies to the centrality—and also the complexity—of the concept of truth in Jewish tradition. Often used colloquially in its Yiddish/Ashkenazi form to suggest unvarnished frankness—as in “I’ll tell you the emmis”—the word in Hebrew is used at key points in the daily prayer service and in the phrase one is supposed to say on hearing of a death, Baruch dayan emet—“Blessed is the true Judge.”
“The value of truth permeates the fabric of Judaism both legally and philosophically,” writes Ari Zivotovsky, an Israeli rabbi and professor of neuroscience at Bar-Ilan University who blogs and writes on halacha. Three central Torah verses are usually cited to establish this value, starting with the prohibition in the Ten Commandments on bearing false witness (Exodus 20:13) and including admonitions to “Keep far from a false matter” (Exodus 23:7) and not to “deal falsely nor lie to one another” (Leviticus 19:11).
As in the golem recipe, the Talmudic rabbis also extract esoteric meanings from the word’s letters. The three letters of emet, it is noted, are the first, middle and last letters of the Hebrew alphabet, and visually the letters rest on wide bases, suggesting that truth stands on a broad and stable foundation. (By contrast, the letters that make up the opposite word, sheker—falsehood—all have narrow or round bases, suggesting falsehood’s essential instability.)
All this may sound as if Jewish tradition sees truth as simple or absolute, but that’s far from the case. From the earliest commentaries up to the present, rabbis and scholars have pointed to passages where “truth” is grouped alongside other values, such as the prophets’ admonition to “Love the truth and peace” (Zacharia 8:19) or the oft-cited saying from Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) that “The world stands on three pillars: on truth, on justice and on peace.” The lesson of such juxtapositions, the rabbis have traditionally taught, is that truth exists along with other cornerstone social values and must be balanced with them.
One source of support for this point might seem surprising: The Torah is filled with stories where central characters, including Abraham, appear to lie. The commentators, far from condemning these behaviors in all cases, discuss a range of circumstances in which lying either outright or by omission might be beneficial: preserving someone’s life, maintaining the peace, protecting a person’s dignity or even sparing a dying patient from knowing how sick he is. (It’s far from unanimous, of course: Other authorities construct complex arguments to demonstrate why statements that appear to be lies are actually nothing of the sort.) Even God Himself appears to tell untruths under certain circumstances, most famously his appearance to Abraham and Sarah in Genesis, when he tells Sarah she will have a child and then reports only part of her reaction to Abraham, leaving out a joke about how old her husband is—and implicitly his likely performance—that Abraham would probably find hurtful.
One lesson that emerges from all this weighing of examples and hypotheticals is that emet is a value rarely to be treated in isolation. “Emet v-shalom—truth and peace—is recognized throughout tradition as a very important balance,” says Yehuda Kurtzer, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute. He’s referring mostly to the modern applications of this idea in a truth-challenged world, since his organization just announced it will hold its annual rabbinic conference this summer on the theme “Truth and Reconcilation: Integrity and Pluralism in a World of Partisanship and #FakeNews.” But Kurtzer points out that this emphasis on balance is far from a modern innovation in Jewish thought. After the Second Temple fell, he says, there was a shift in the way truth was discussed: “The Bible is the word of God, but the rabbis after the fall of the Temple develop an ethic that the word of God isn’t fully accessible, because we no longer know what the word of God is, or who has it. And we become wary of those who say they have direct access to it.”
An example is the very first passage in the Talmudic tractate Bava Metzia, a frequent entry point for beginners in Talmud study. The passage concerns the necessity for sometimes settling a dispute without knowing the ultimate truth: Two people are holding a garment, and both claim it. In the absence of proof, the rabbis ruled, they must divide the garment—a change from the biblical dispute the case echoes, in which King Solomon threatens to divide a baby claimed by two women. (In that story, the mother of the child gives up her claim to save its life, thus proving she is in fact the mother.)
Because of phenomena like the president maligning the news media, or bots writing fake news stories, it’s not just a question of letting different truths coexist but of defending the truth against falsehood.
One theme that runs through these post-biblical discussions of truth in the Talmud is a principle expressed in the words Eilu v’eilu divrei Elohim chayim—“These and these are the words of the living God”—suggesting that, even in a dispute among different rabbinic authorities, both sides have merit and are worth preserving and studying, even if one is preferred. The words are spoken by a “heavenly voice” that intervenes in a famous Talmudic episode to settle a dispute between the houses of Hillel and Shammai, and they are widely seen as an indication of the Jewish emphasis on respecting minority voices and arriving at truth through reasoned dispute.
Those strains of Jewish thought gained prominence in the mid-20th century, when thinkers such as Yitz Greenberg and David Hartman argued for the importance of pluralism and of holding multiple truths in respectful dialogue. Those concepts came to dominate Jewish communal discourse and interfaith outreach; later, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and others took the concept further, with works such as Sacks’s The Dignity of Difference (2002) arguing that human diversity and religious difference are themselves divine aspects of creation.
With differences running amok today and truth increasingly elusive, some see this discussion as losing its relevance. “There’s something interesting about waking up in the 21st century and finding that so much of that 20th-century structure has collapsed,” Kurtzer says. “Because of phenomena like the president maligning the news media, or bots writing fake news stories, it’s not just a question of letting different truths coexist but of defending the truth against falsehood.” On the Israel issue, for instance, study after study shows that people tend to go looking for facts to support an existing world view, rather than making up their minds based on the facts they learn. Jewish institutions, and Jews generally, may be in for a period of wrestling with the competing demands of maintaining pluralist dialogue and battling pernicious myth. “How much are we supposed to be committed to the truth,” Kurtzer asks, “and how much to the idea that the ability to know the truth has its limitations?”