(Prepared for the World Religions Conference February 2, 2016)
I just recently returned from a conference of Jewish Renewal Clergy held annually in Boulder, Colorado, the home of our founder, Rabbi Zalman Shachter-Shalomi of blessed memory. Each year’s conference has a different them. This year’s theme was Deep Ecumenism: V’Chol Netivoteha Shalom. V’Chol netivoteha shalom means “and all her pathways are peace”.
Every Sabbath (as well as two more times during the week), Jews read a portion of the Torah, the most sacred holy book of the Jewish people. We remove the scroll from the Ark with great ceremony, chanting words from various psalms and excerpts from the Old Testament, including a portion from the Zohar, the book of Jewish mysticism. Holding the Torah in front of the congregation, the leader chants the Shema, the Jewish credo, and then parades it around the synagogue while chanting more excerpts from the Old Testament and psalms. It then is returned to the front, gently laid down on a table and unwrapped for reading in an ancient cantillation. After the Torah service is over, it is rewrapped and paraded around again while more psalms are sung. In the final paragraph we solemnly chant words from Proverbs: Eitz chayim hi lamachazikim bah, she is a tree of life to those who grasp her, vetomcheha meushar, and those who uphold her are happy. Deracheha darchei noam, Her ways are ways of pleasantness, v’chol netivoheha shalom, and all her pathways are peace.
Time and again, the Torah chooses the pathway of peace, preferring the value of peace over other fundamental values, such as truth. An illustration. At the end of Bereishit, Genesis, the first book of the Torah, we read about the death of the Patriarch Jacob/Ya’akov. Our Patriarch Jacob is considered to represent, or be the symbol of, Torah and truth although he was not exactly a truth teller. He tricked his brother Esau into selling his birthright for a bowl of lentil stew. He masqueraded as Esau to steal their father’s blessing. He seemed to use magic or some form of witchcraft to make animals of his herd grow spots knowing that, according to his agreement with Lavan, his father-in-law, he would be allowed to keep the spotted animals.
Our rabbinic sages considered that Jacob lived his truth by seizing what he knew was his, the birthright, even though he did not follow the letter of the law when doing so. He went on to live a life of Torah in Egypt. His life was one of connection with God that transcended material settings and that was perpetuated beyond his mortal lifetime. Before his death Jacob summoned his sons (and grandsons), the progenitors of the twelve tribes, to bless them. His blessings reflected the unique character and ability of each tribe, directing each one in its unique mission in serving God. After Jacob's passing, eleven of the brothers are concerned that Joseph will now take revenge on them for selling him into slavery as a youth. And how do they do that? By lying to him. The first thing that happens after the death of the Patriarch who symbolizes truth is that eleven of his sons lie to the twelfth.
We read in chapter 50, verses 15-17:
Joseph’s brothers perceived that their father was dead, and they said, “Perhaps Joseph will nurse hatred against us and then he will surely repay us all the evil that we did him.” So they instructed that Joseph be told, “Your father gave orders before his death, saying: “Thus shall you say to Joseph: “O please kindly forgive the spiteful deed of your brothers and their sin for they have done you evil”’; so now, please forgive the spiteful deed of the servants of your father’s God.” And Joseph wept when they spoke to him.
Joseph reassured them, even promising to support them and their families. It is difficult to see in the text that Jacob gave any such instruction. We have no evidence that Jacob ever knew what happened to Joseph, neither from Joseph himself, nor from his brothers. And if this indeed was Jacob’s deathbed instruction, why did he not communicate it to Joseph directly? Our Rabbinic Sages maintain that Jacob did not leave such an instruction because it would never even have occurred to him.
What happened here? When the brothers realized their guilt, if they still imagined that Joseph harboured any designs against them, weren’t they obliged to accept the punishment? At the very least, weren’t they obliged to ask for his forgiveness directly? Instead, they lied to Joseph.
Our Sages discussed this question and concluding that the brothers lied to promote peace between themselves and Joseph. Joseph’s brothers realized their guilt and imagined that nothing less than death was their due for the crime they had committed. They therefore concocted this story. This raises profound questions. Are there situations which entitle you, may even demand of you, to depart from strict adherence to the truth. In the Talmud, the foundational text of Jewish law, our Rabbinic Sages answer yes, it is permissible for someone to deviate from the truth in the interests of peace. The brothers’ conduct was warranted on the principle that truth has sometimes to be subordinated to more important values such as peace.
Why is peace more important than truth? Judaism attributes extraordinary value to peace. The prophets of ancient Israel saw peace as an ideal. That is why the words of the Prophet Isaiah (2:2-4), echoed by the Prophet Micah (4:3), have never lost their power:
He will judge among the nations and will arbitrate disputes for many peoples. And they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not take up sword against nation, they shall never again know war.
At the same time, Judaism takes a subtle view of truth. Truth is many-faceted and elusive. Of the disputes between the schools of the Sages Hillel and Shammai, the Talmud says, "These and those are the words of the living G-d." Ultimate truth forever eludes us.
Our Sages teach us that the world is predicated on truth as it says in Pirkei Avot,The Ethics of Our Fathers (1:18): “The world stands on three things, on justice, on truth, and on peace.” Truth matters, but peace matters more.