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If We Accept Lies and Half-Truths, Society Will Not Function

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avatar by Pini Dunner

Opinion

A Torah scroll. Photo: RabbiSacks.org.

Benjamin Franklin declared that “half the truth is often a great lie.” Mark Twain put it slightly differently: “A half-truth is the most cowardly of lies.” And this, from Tennyson: “The lie which is half a truth is ever the blackest of lies.”

Essentially, they were all saying the same thing — the lies that cause the most harm are the half-truths, which can ultimately cause far greater damage than outright lies.

A 2022 study issued by four academics at the University of Cincinnati — “The Half-Truth Effect and Its Implications for Sustainability” — identified what the authors referred to as the “half-truth effect.” Based on two carefully calibrated survey-based experiments, the study showed that people tend to believe a false claim more when it is preceded by a true claim, even if the claims are unrelated. On the other hand, when a false claim is presented before a true claim, it reduces belief in the entire statement.

Politicians are particularly bad when it comes to half-truths, and party affiliation is not a relevant factor — because they all do it. Two months ago, President Biden told an audience in Philadelphia that he had “created more new jobs in two years than any president did in their entire term.” But although it’s true that President Biden has recorded notable job gains in his presidential term so far, surpassing those of previous postwar presidents, the fact is that he took office just as the economy was recovering from a profound recession, which gave the job market a significant tailwind. So, a half-truth.

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Meanwhile, at the opposite end of the political spectrum, last week former vice president Mike Pence told an audience in Indianapolis that “liberals” emptied mental health hospitals in 1960s. He failed to mention that they didn’t act alone. Many fiscal conservatives, including several Republicans, were instrumental in shaping the key legislation that resulted in shutting down mental hospitals. Ronald Reagan, who served as both California’s governor and later as president, was particularly prominent; he signed landmark bills that left a significant impact. Another half-truth.

The Torah portions of Tazria and Metzora delve into an extinct condition known as “tzara’at,” which was characterized by discoloration of the skin, on clothes, or on the walls of a person’s home. The consequence of a positive diagnosis was quarantine outside community boundaries for someone with the skin discoloration tzara’at, or the destruction of clothes or a home that had been infected.

While not explicitly stated in the Torah, the Talmudic sages reveal that tzara’at was the consequence of wrongdoing on the part of the afflicted person. The Talmud (Arachin 16a), drawing on various Biblical sources, suggests different potential causes for tzara’at, with speaking ill of others behind their backs being the best-known cause.

The divergence of opinions regarding the cause of tzara’at suggests that by the time the sages of the Talmud were writing about it, the condition had either disappeared or become exceedingly rare, leading the sages to speculate on its causes. But the persistence of this idea that gossip and tittle-tattle were the main cause of tzara’at is intriguing, especially as the Talmud mentions six other potential causes.

The enigmatic nature of tzara’at leaves us grappling with uncertainties as we attempt to understand exactly what we are meant to learn from it. Why would God choose to punish individuals for a seemingly minor transgression such as engaging in gossip? The notion of quarantine and public humiliation is also puzzling. Why would isolation be the remedy? Why is the destruction of clothes and a person’s home the only solution?

The answer relates to the issue of half-truths vs. whole truths. I vividly recall a classroom discussion during my childhood, and although I can’t remember the exact topic, I do recollect our teacher posing the question, “What is your parents’ greatest source of pleasure?” My hand shot up. Smiling, I confidently responded, “Me, of course!”

But he had a follow-up question: “What’s your parents’ greatest source of pain?” I paused, briefly, and then I smiled again. “Me, of course!” I replied. And I wasn’t lying — although, to be fair, my siblings probably shared this distinction with me. Being the source of pleasure and pain was the whole truth; had I said that I was the source of just one or the other it would have been a half-truth that distorted the picture completely.

Many aspects of our lives are wonderful, but we are also all plagued by aspects that are distressing and disturbing. Curiously, if we analyze our lives and are brutally honest with ourselves, we might discover that it is often the same thing which causes joy that also causes us distress. Presented one way they are irredeemably negative, but presented in another they can be upliftingly positive. Our personal reality is complex, and life is complicated.

Modern psychology has come to the conclusion that depressed people aren’t lying when they say that there are things in their lives which are bad — it’s just that they fail to appreciate that there is good in their lives as well. And often, the good is in the very same aspects of their lives which they cast in the most negative light.

Society descends into dysfunction when one “truth” is chosen over another without considering the coexistence of multiple truths. This idea is exemplified by tzara’at and its treatment. Tzara’at was an affliction that befell those who refused to acknowledge that good and bad can coexist. They spoke ill of others, perhaps sharing a half-truth about them that cast their target in an entirely negative light without allowing the listener to consider the broader context.

Often, the greatest lie is the truth seen through a narrow lens. The gravest evil is the undermining of complex reality by cherry-picking truths to support or perpetuate a biased viewpoint. A person with tzara’at needs to be removed from society, so that they cannot destroy it, and the tzara’at itself must be destroyed, as a symbol of the destruction created by those who peddle half-truths.

The message of tzara’at is clear: half-truths wreak havoc. They erode the fabric of society, and those who perpetuate them must never be tolerated, or society will fall apart.

The author is a rabbi in Beverly Hills, California.

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