Puttin’ On Shabbat – Shalom Rav / Blue Skies
From the desk of Rabbi David Lyon
“Access to truth before passing judgment is our moral duty”
The news about this past week’s confirmation hearings doesn’t require another commentary, but the purpose of an FBI investigation after the confirmation hearings of Judge Kavanaugh is oddly enough explained in an ancient Biblical story, a rabbinic lesson, and a timeless Jewish value.
In Genesis 11, we read about the Tower of Babel. It’s a short story that tells about the people living in the land of Shinar, who spoke only one language. It enabled them to cooperate in a project to build a tower to the heavens. Torah tells us, “Then God came down” to see what the people were doing. In the end, God confounded their language and scattered them to the four corners of the earth. By confounding their language they could no longer succeed in building the tower. The word Babel is at the root of our modern word “babble,” which means to speak unintelligibly.
Post Biblically, the rabbis-of-old asked a question, “Why did God have to come down to see what the people were doing?” After all, traditional Judaism taught that God was all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-present. God didn’t need to come down to see what the people were doing. Therefore, the rabbis concluded, that just as Torah is written in human language for our understanding, so the purpose in God’s coming down must be to teach a human lesson.
The rabbis taught that God came down to see for God’s-self what the people were doing before passing judgment. Only then did God confound their language and scatter them across the earth. God’s role was not only to act as judge, but also as teacher. We learn from God’s role that we must see for ourselves before passing judgment, too. However, we are limited in what we can know. Unlike God, Who knows our deeds and our intentions, we can only know one’s deeds. We cannot know what’s truly in one’s heart.
In the past, it was easier to assess for ourselves what we could know. There were two newspapers in Houston, one in the morning and one in the evening. There were three television channels and regular nightly news that most knowledgeable people watched religiously. Walter Cronkite was a source of reliable news and credible insights. As our world has grown, we can’t lament the plethora of news sources and our over-indulgence of information; but, we can remain committed to the Torah lesson to see for ourselves what we can know before passing judgment. Discernment is required of us to know what we can with credibility; and, not to pass judgment prematurely or in haste.
Here, our Jewish values would answer the question we might have struggled with; namely, whether or not an FBI investigation was necessary. Setting aside the polarized environment we live in, today, there remains ample room for our Jewish values to guide us to truth we can observe in one’s deeds and told in one’s testimony. We cannot know what’s in one’s heart, but our search for truth has always been paramount in Judaism, and gaining access to truth before passing judgment is our moral duty and obligation. Let the investigation reveal what it can and allow the truth to be told.
As a rabbi, my job is to teach Torah and impose Jewish values where they might be lacking or misunderstood. However this case might be resolved, it is a perfect example where Jewish values instruct us that we must search for truth as our highest priority, and all the more so, as we prepare to seat a member of the Supreme Court of the United States of America.
Rabbi David A. Lyon is Senior Rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel in Houston, TX. Rabbi Lyon serves on the Board of Trustees of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and chairs its professional development committee. He can be heard on “iHeart-Radio” KODA 99.1 FM every Sunday at 6:45am CST, and he is the author of God of Me: Imagining God Throughout Your Lifetime (Jewish Lights, 2011) available on Amazon.com.