The structure of the classic film Rashomon has been copied so endlessly that you’re familiar with the formula, even if you’ve never seen or even heard of the original Japanese film from 1950. The setup is simple: Multiple people tell their versions of the same story. Each one recounts the same events, but the details are different. Which is true? Which version is real? The answer, of course, is all of them. Assuming no one is intentionally lying, each version reflects the various ways that different people experience the same event. The formula is enduring because it reflects a fundamental part of the human experience: reality is subjective.
But if reality is subjective, how do you determine truth? The answer depends in part on what kind of truth you are searching for. Today’s daf presents the rabbis with that very question: When presented with two different stories, whose should you believe? Their answer tells us something very interesting about their perspective on truth.
The case before the rabbis, as it appears in the mishnah, is about two conflicting accounts of a marriage proposal:
If a man who says to a woman, “I betroth you,” and she says, “You did not betroth me” — he is forbidden to her relatives, and she is permitted to his relatives.
If she says “You betrothed me,” and he says “I did not betroth you” — he is permitted to her relatives, and she is forbidden to his relatives.
Under Jewish law, a man may not marry his wife’s relatives while she is still alive, even if they divorce. Although the laws are a bit more complicated for women, for the purposes of this case the same is basically true for her — she cannot marry her husband’s relatives.
Thus, the mishnah’s answer to the question of whose version of the betrothal should be accepted is: both! Each receives the legal outcome of their own truth claim: A man who says he betrothed a woman may not marry her relatives, even though she denies the betrothal. And likewise, even though the man says that he betrothed the woman, if she denies it, she is permitted to marry his relatives. The same is true when the genders are reversed.
What does the discussion of this case in the Gemara tell us about rabbinic perceptions of reality and truth? First, while the sugya momentarily considers the motivations either this man or this woman might have for lying, rather than focusing on the issue of distinguishing truth from lies, it moves on in a different direction that it seems to find more compelling: The question of whether legal acts (in this case, betrothals) that happen in front of only one witness, rather than the rabbinically required two, are valid.
I think this is because the Talmud is not primarily interested in whether either of these people are lying. The point the rabbis eventually come to is that lying is irrelevant. The question is not what actually happened; the question is how to shape a legal reality around differing accounts of what happened. Maybe the best demonstration of this occurs later on the daf, when Rav Nahman cites this teaching from Shmuel:
One who betroths a woman in the presence of one witness — we are not concerned with his betrothal, even if both admit to it.
This teaching means that if the betrothal did not occur in front of the legally required two witnesses, it does not stand, even if both parties agree that they were betrothed to one another in front of a witness. This teaching extends the principle behind the mishnah’s case, in which a person’s perception of events dictates their reality, to a larger point that the law can create its own reality, even when it is in direct contradiction to three people’s unified eyewitness testimony.
This interest in legal realities underlies the entire daf. In the face of contradictory statements, we might expect a group of legal scholars to put their minds to figuring out ways of determining which person is lying and to finding the truth. But the reality is that the rabbis very often show themselves to be uninterested in getting to what we might think of as the truth. They are interested instead in finding the correct legal solution to a given problem. They are bringing halakhic order to a chaotic world, not deepening their understanding of the events themselves. So we can ask again: What is truth? In this daf, we find it depends entirely on who is asking, and why.