Kol Nidrei 5782 | September 15, 2021
A few months ago, my father texted me a listing from Zillow, the real estate app. My childhood home was on the market. We moved out of that house when I was 11-years-old, so I was curious how it had held up over time. Swiping through the first few photos, I was impressed. The footprint of the house was as I remembered it. But, someone had updated the kitchen, redone the bathrooms, and taken down the 1980's wallpaper. The realtor had staged the house with attractive furniture. It all looked good. If I were in the market for a new home today, I would look at 3106 Audubon Court in Sugar Land, Texas.
Except, the house was a lie. My father texted the listing to a relator cousin, excited by how good the place looked. She texted back right away, asking if we had swiped all the way to the end. I had not. Swiping past the first four or five photos showed the house as it actually was. The 80's wallpaper was still there, the drapes were tired and stained, none of the furniture in the first few photos was actually there. The staging of the house had been faked. Someone photoshopped the whole set of images to give buyers a sense of the house's potential. The listing agent did not do it to deceive, per se, but argue that with a bit of effort, one could have a beautiful house.
I looked back at the photos again. If the second set of real photos had not been posted along with the first, I would have never been able to tell that anything had been computer-generated. The lie was convincingly realistic.
We have become accustomed to giving in to visual imagination, often more than we realize. The amateur photographer can easily erase pesky phone poles and errant tree branches from his landscapes. A brown barn can be colored red. Clouds are added to give a blue sky more texture.
Sophisticated digital artists today can also fake video or audio. We saw that this past summer with the controversy regarding Roadrunner, the documentary about the late chef and traveler Anthony Bourdain. In three brief clips, the film's director faked Bourdain's voice using artificial intelligence. Bourdain never said what one hears him saying. In turn, that problematizes the film's classification as a documentary meant to convey something true. The faked voice would have remained practically undetectable had the director not disclosed the addition. But now knowing the truth, we wonder: is a documentary that uses a fake of someone's voice actually a documentary or something else?
I think back to 2003 when writer James Frey got into trouble for fabricating much of what he wrote in his memoir A Million Little Pieces. The book was widely promoted; Oprah chose it for her book club. But, as journalists began to ask questions about the holes in his narrative, everyone saw that much of what he claimed to be memoir was fiction.
The broker lists photos of doctored homes for sale, the documentarian creates deepfaked audio, and the memoirist fictionalizes his life. In so many aspects of our society, we have faked things, passing lies off as truth. The more we amplify those lies, the harder it becomes to erase them from our societal lexicon. "Get your facts first," said Mark Twain, "then you can distort them as you please." The truth is not always as it seems.
In conveying the truth, one is also an interpreter and translator. The task of the storyteller is to give his audience a sense of what happened. And in telling true stories, two realities operate in partnership. The first is factual truth; we tell it like it happened. The second is emotional truth; we suggest what the moment evoked in us. Emotional truth can be palpable, plausible, and engaging--if not more so--than factual truth. Sometimes the emotional truth and the factual truth do not match up. In retelling a story, we allow for flexibility between the two types of truth.
Facts, alone, though, are subject to their own rigidity. And when lies are passed along as a truth of their own, we have now seen how we, as a society, can break. We are too aware that the denial of stated and confirmed facts can lead to the breakdown of social norms, violating the social contract we hold with one another. The lies we tell family and friends erode the relationships. Lies in business not only undo trust but can be criminal. And the lies and conspiracy theories amplified in society chip away at our confidence in one another, especially when those in positions of power and influence spread them. Denying climate change slows down our setting good policies and practices that could save this planet. Lies about election fraud are essentially anti-democratic. Denying the efficacy of the COVID-19 vaccine perpetuates the spread of the virus. Moreover, it allows for some to question all vaccines. Denying scientifically established facts puts people's lives at risk. The lies we tell one another, big and small, have consequences personally and communally.
In the Jewish community, we have seen firsthand the consequences of the spread of lies.
In the heart of Prague's Jewish Quarter sits the Altneushul, the oldest surviving synagogue in Europe. In the 1500's Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, also known as the MaHaRaL, served that synagogue and Prague's Jewish community. The MaHaRaL was one of the leading rabbinic minds of the 16th Century, revered for his scholarship in the Bible, Talmud, and Jewish philosophy. He was widely known to be a student of the secular fields popular in his age. He was a student of science and religion. Like many other thinkers emerging out of this period of history, he sought to integrate the two.
Beyond his scholarship, a legend about the MaHaRaL is also told. It was the MaHaRaL of Prague who created the Golem in reaction to the blood libels.
At that time, Prague's Christian leaders spread antisemitic lies about their Jewish neighbors. These leaders claimed nothing new, asserting that Jews kidnapped Christian children to use their blood for Passover rituals. In some versions of these lies, the blood was used in the matzo present on the Passover Seder table. These deliberate lies were most often circulated in the Springtime. Proximate to Passover and Easter, the lies were then linked to the assertion that we Jews are responsible for the passion and crucifixion of Jesus. This big lie promoted hatred of Jews among their Christian neighbors and fed a delusion "that Jews are in some way not human." Across Europe, as the Blood Libels took root, they became the rationale for (at their best) restrictive and (at their worst) violent antisemitic policies against the Jews. Generations of our people were tortured and killed because of these lies.
One year, around Passover time, as the word of the Blood Libels spread, the MaHaRaL took action. As the leader of the Jewish community, he sought to protect his people. Equipped with the know-how and mastery of the mystical, the MaHaRaL went out to the forest under cover of night. There, he formed a human creature out of clay, and reciting God's sacred name, breathed life into a Golem. The monster rose up from the forest floor. The MaHaRaL inscribed a single word in the Golem's forehead: Aleph, Mem, Tav, Emet, Truth in Hebrew. In combat with the big lie of his time, the Golem embodied all that was true.
The MaHaRaL understood that to combat deep-seated lies, one must put the truth out into the world.
A memory of the Blood Libels is with us still. I heard it in what people now Pizzagate, the conspiracy theory spread by QAnon acolytes. History teaches that indulging in Blood Libels can have violent consequences. I think of January 6. The lessons learned from medieval times are contemporary. Though we do not have the power to create a Golem, we are nonetheless to be like the MaHaRaL, we are called to bring the truth out into the world, and to shun lying.
We tell the truth in two directions: to ourselves and to one another.
Truth-telling begins with our internal dialogue, and on Yom Kippur, we focus on that truth-telling. The Vidui, our confessional prayer, is a sort of truth-telling. As we beat our chests and recite the alphabet of woe, we are invited in to explore the lies we maintain for ourselves and the truth we deny. When we are obstinate, we could have been understanding. When we cheat, we could have been honest. Confession is good for the soul because the truth opens doors to a better future for ourselves. Truth-telling loosens the knot of lies with which we tie ourselves up.
And turning that truth-telling outward can release us from the bonds lies create. "For transgressions between one person and another, Yom Kippur does not atone until one requests it from the other," we say. When we offend another person, whether by lying or some other transgression, we burden that person with negative emotions. We saddle their souls--and I hope--our own as well. Tonight and tomorrow, we are gifted the opportunity to tell the truth, to address the injury committed. This is how forgiveness happens: we sit with the other person and tell them the truth. By sharing our experiences of the offense and fessing up to any lies we've promulgated, we address the hurt, resentment, and anger that has been allowed to exist and begin a new chapter together.
In some Jewish spiritual circles, it has long been a practice in this season to reach out to friends and family to ask their forgiveness. We say, "If I have done anything to unknowingly offend you, I apologize and ask your forgiveness." Yet, I wonder if that does not go far enough because we still shield ourselves from hearing the whole truth. This year, to that request, I added another line, "If I unknowingly offended you in any way, I would like to know about it, so I can reflect on that and apologize."
We live in a fast-paced, aggressive society that does not reward the weak or meek. We are surrounded by a constant feed of manipulated images, words, and sounds that, in return, manipulate us. Zillow homes are not always as listed; what we hear and see is not always as it actually is; what we read is not as it was. I want to believe that a lie cannot stand. Truth has to be the truth. We each have a part to play in promoting factual truth and calling out the lies. I fear the consequences of not doing so.
And so, in this coming year, let us be honest with ourselves, and may we tell the truth to one another. In that way, may we continue to do all we can to fill the fractures of our broken world with light and truth.
G'mar Chatimah Tova.