John Lennon once wrote in lyrical desperation, “All I want is the truth, man. Just gimme some truth.” Without any conscious intention, I woke on this morning before Purim, with Lennon’s aching voice circling my spirit. I smiled a teary grin, as I sang to myself, “All I want is the truth, man. Just gimme some truth.” Lennon’s song bemoaned that it felt impossible for him to discern the authentic truth through the rhetoric of political chatter and its associated punditry.
And that is all I want. Just give me the truth. The air waves are full of so much noise. The more black and white our politicians try to paint it, the more grey it all feels to me.
I love Israel. I stand for Israel. Please excuse the drama when I say that I would die for Israel. I believe that Jews only live with a measure of comfort in the Diaspora because of the fact that Israel exists. And Israel cannot merely exist. Israel must thrive and be strong.
And, I love the United States of America. Despite our profound societal problems, I feel privileged to live here. I don’t take the breadth of my rights for granted. Even though I want so much more to be better here, I believe that we are the shining city on the hill.
What’s the truth for me? The truth is that I was angry at Prime Minister Netanyahu for coming to speak in the greatest auditorium in the world without an invitation from the US President. I believe he acted disrespectfully to the Office of the President. I believe that it is bad form to use the US Congress as a political tool and campaign stop just two weeks before an Israeli election. I believe that the politics of this all might have, in fact, obscured the grave and serious facts about the real issue at hand: Iran’s nuclear ambitions. And finally, I think the speech created a potential for greater partisan fissure, when for most of our recent history, the support of Israel has been an agreed upon partisan issue. That is why congress shows up in such great numbers to the AIPAC Policy Conference annually. I am moved by their attendance every year, both Democrats and Republicans.
What is the truth for me? Once the Prime Minister was intent on speaking, I lobbied in every way possible for every member of congress to show up. Israel is too important for anyone to misinterpret a boycott of a political situation for a boycott of Israel herself. Too many of my own congregants were pointing to anti-Semitism when I believe the truth was more about politics than it was about being against Jews and our Homeland.
What is the truth? The truth is that Prime Minister Netanyahu brought me to tears. I love Israel and believe that Iran has evil intentions. I believe Iran when its leaders say they want to wipe Israel and Jews off the map. I believe in “Never Again” because too many of my own family members were wiped out by the Nazis. I believe that we can’t be innocent or foolish in our assessments of Iran and its ruthless leaders. I fear for Jewish safety.
What is the truth? The truth is that I was moved to tears because of my love for Israel and I also felt, at the same time, the nagging feeling of being manipulated by political theater. I wish that the leaders of the lands I love the most would spend their time not giving speeches, but instead strategizing in Situation Rooms, every scenario possible towards mitigating the Iran problem. Iran’s intentions were made loud and clear yesterday. But very few options were given. War might be the only option, but the drumbeat towards conflict should be accompanied with every other alternative possible. Our lives are worth too much now….as much before a conflict as they would be after such an event.
What is the truth? The truth is that we are frightened and we have to be very careful not to be paralyzed by our fear. It is up to our political leaders to just give us the truth. Not their nuanced versions of narrative to help build either of their political resumes. But a line of reasoning which binds us together as Jews and Americans towards a course of survival and flourishing. I have come to the point where I vote Jewish first. I just pray that both President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu care as much about our survival as they do about their ownership of power and political legacies. And perhaps they should spend more time hearing and learning from one another and less time making political theater…..all of which makes the truth so much tougher to discern.
Tonight we are told to don masks and disguises to celebrate Purim. We add layers of truth and dare by virtue of our celebration. When the raucous Purim parties end we will arrive home sweaty with joy. The first thing we will want to do is rip off our costumes. We will want to stop pretending. We will want to be us again. We will look in the mirror and see the truth of who we are without façade.
When the holiday of masks and disguises is over, once again, we will sing, “All I want is the truth, man. Just gimme some truth.”
While there were quite a few excellent movies in 2012, my favorite, far and away was “Argo.” I saw it with my wife and another couple, and the film was so well-crafted that my friend was quite literally curled in his seat, covering his eyes and holding his breath during a scene where the only thing happening was the printing of plane tickets. The whole ending was tense, taut and exciting.
It was also completely fabricated.
Yet when I learned about that, I actually wasn’t all that upset. It was a great movie that prompted me to read Tony Mendez’ personal account how he got six Americans out of Iran, so that I could learn what had been true, what had been adapted, and what had been made up whole cloth.
We know that no movie that is “based on a true story” is ever the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. The editors decide what stays in, what gets cut, and what order the story should be told in. What we forget is that our lives are “based on a true story,” as well.
Jonathan Gottschall is the author of the book The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, and he reminds us that we all edit our life story. As he describes it:
A life story is a “personal myth” about who we are deep down — where we come from, how we got this way, and what it all means….[I]t is not, however, an objective account. A life story is a shaped narrative that is replete with strategic forgetting and skillfully spun meanings. (161)
It’s important to remember the real purpose of a story — and it is not simply to relay facts. It’s to put those facts into a meaningful context. A good story doesn’t simply tell us “what happened,” it tells us how and why it happened. In other words, a story — whether that’s a movie like “Argo” or our own personal narrative — is not designed to be a perfectly accurate record of history. Instead, our stories are much more like “memory.”
While history is an attempt to correctly portray past events, memory is a reconstruction of past events, some of which are going to be inherently distorted, overlooked, or even completely rewritten. And for our day-to-day lives, memory is much more important than history — and that’s an idea that resonates with a Jewish perspective.
Avraham Infeld, who served as President of Hillel International, once said that there’s no such things as Jewish history; there is only Jewish memory. What’s the difference? “History means knowing what happened in the past. Memory means asking how what happened in the past influences me, and my life today. It is for that reason that we do not teach our young that our ancestors left Egypt. We teach them that ‘every human being must see him or herself as having left Egypt.'” Memory, in other words, is the driver for the story we tell about ourselves here and now.
So yes, we do need history. We do need accuracy. We do need to make sure that we trying to act with intellectual integrity. But we also shouldn’t conflate history with story. After all, our personal and communal myths are rarely historically accurate, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t have value.
Indeed, there’s a line that my friend and colleague Cantor Ellen Dreskin often says that is equally true about “Argo,” our collective Jewish memory, and our own life story: “Something doesn’t have to be factual for it to be true.”
How very true that is.