Two Hold on to Their Truth

My class, Ripped from the Headlines where we discuss current issues from a Jewish perspective, resumed today and we spoke about the major news story of the moment: the nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. While we talked about the political implications of the nomination, my main focus was on the question of truth.

How do we figure out what is the truth when one person testifies under oath that she is 100% sure something happened and another person testifies under oath that he is 100% sure that thing did not happen. There is no real corroborating evidence either way, rather a classic she said/he said situation.

So how is one to make a decision in such a case? In an American courtroom there is a presumption of innocence so the question comes down to who you believe: him or her. Of course it has been pointed out that a Supreme Court confirmation hearing is not a court of law. It is also not quite a job interview since job interviews don’t usually require one to testify on pain of perjury.

Jewish law, it turns out, addresses this question in a different way. There is a case, from the Mishna in Bava Metzia (1:1) where two people hold on to a tallit and both claim it is absolutely theirs. The rabbis respond not by interviewing both parties and listening to find out who is more truthful.

This of course is the way that King Solomon determined who was the true mother of a child in a case that came before him (I Kings 3:16-28). Again two people came before him giving diametrically opposed stories. One said the baby is mine, the other said, no the baby is mine. But Solomon sussed out the truth by presenting both women with the prospect that he would cut the baby in half. The woman who said “give the baby to the other woman, I don’t want him to die” would be the true mother, he reasoned.

The rabbis, in the case of the tallit, actually do exactly what Solomon only threatened. They cut the garment and give half to one person and the other half to the other. In a situation where the stakes are low, just a piece of cloth, the rabbis are not interested in getting at the truth. They are only interested in compromise.

What are we to make of these Biblical and rabbinic cases in light of Judge Kavanaugh’s confirmation? Certainly, the approach of the rabbis is unworkable: a Supreme Court seat is not something that can be divided: either he gets on the court of he doesn’t.

If only we had the wisdom of Solomon to make a decision the way he would, but unfortunately there is no impartial arbiter like him in our society trusted by all to make a critical decision.

While the case of the tallit may seem to be one with low consequences, the 20th century Jewish philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel elevates it to a higher plane. He points to the use of the word tallit, which after all is a holy garment, to argue that over the centuries Jews have grabbed on to Judaism itself while fighting over its meaning. The same could be said for our society today with regard to the truth. Two sides are grasping hold and each one says, “I am 100% certain of what is true.” Perhaps what we need is both a little compromise and a little wisdom.

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