Sermon, Yom Kippur 5779: Tafalnu Sheker

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 19 September 2018

In the mid-1970s, researchers at two US universities carried out an experiment.  College students were asked to rate a range of statements as true or false. The statements were taken from a variety of subject areas – politics, sports, the arts.  They were obscure enough that the students would be unlikely to know the answer, and for each statement their truth was plausible.

The exercise was carried out with the same students three times, at two-week intervals.  And, without the subjects knowing, the experimenters included some of the statements across the testing sessions, while others were fresh each time.

They found a clear, and slightly terrifying result: if subjects had heard a statement in previous sessions they were more likely to rate it as true.  The reason seems to be something called processing fluency.  If something is familiar, even if you don’t know that you have heard it before, it’s quicker for your brain to process, and the brain makes a mistake; it confuses that speed of processing for truth.

Further studies have found something even more shocking.  This can be the case even where you know that a statement is false.  And, even worse, repetition of an idea in order to refute it has a similar effect.  Even then, exposure to an idea is enough to increase its believability later on, or at least to add an element of doubt.

This phenomenon is known as ‘Repetition Induced Truth’, or the ‘Illusory Truth Effect’.  And it means that, whether it is, I don’t know, written on the side of a bus, or put out on twitter, or said in a television interview, or even just whispered to a friend, once we’ve heard something, and certainly once it has been repeated a number of times – even in denial – our brains are set up in such a way that we are more likely to rate that statement as at least credible.  “Well, it’s not impossible, right?”

There are a number of similar phenomena in how our brains work.  Processing fluency also means, for example, that we are more likely to rate as true something said by someone whose name we can pronounce!  As human beings we contain multiple biases, weaknesses, of this sort – phenomena of which, most often, we are completely unaware, but which determine how our brains work.  And, of course, these biases make us open to manipulation, and give us the capacity to manipulate others.   They can be used – used to sell us things, used to influence what we think, what we believe, how we vote.

Just in the last few days, we’ve seen some powerful examples of strategic manipulation of Repetition Induced Truth.  We may feel that the narrative in the Russian media surrounding the Novichok poisoning in Salisbury is preposterous.  But it is designed to introduce just that element of doubt.  Or another example: It is hard to pick out the most horrific tweet from the current American president, but this week’s claim that the official death toll from Hurricane Maria had been invented by the Democrats to make him look bad ranks as one of the most repulsive.  But he knows what he’s doing.  The idea is out there now, this statement is in the world, sowing that seed of doubt.  Who can be sure?  And every time it is discussed, every time it is ridiculed on a late night talk show, it adds to its own credibility.
Of course, I’m picking on the most obvious, most blatant examples, but this is not a strategy limited to Putin and Trump.  Politicians, advertisers, climate-change deniers, representatives of unhealthy products – all know that this works.  And at the same time, the media has, in the words of CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, “got itself in knots trying to differentiate between balance, objectivity, neutrality and truth”.  Giving space to those very claims so that we are left thinking, “Well, it’s not impossible, right?”

Such manipulation has always been part of our politics.  There is a direct line from the Zinoviev letter through the fascism and communism of the twentieth century to modern political tactics.  Hannah Arendt famously observed of the mid-twentieth century that “The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction… and the distinction between true and false… no longer exist”.  As the writer Michiko Kakutani observes in his compelling book published this year, “The Death of Truth”, far from being a ‘dispatch from another century’, this sounds like a ‘chilling mirror of the political and cultural landscape we inhabit today’.

We live in an age of fake news and alternative facts; junk science, tribal epistemology, truth decay.  A world in which, to quote Rudy Guiliani, “Truth isn’t truth”.  As sociologist – and Alyth member – Dr Keith Kahn Harris has put it “the sheer profusion of voices, the plurality of opinions, the cacophony of controversy, are enough to make anyone doubt what they should believe”.

Of course, truth can be complex.  We should never dismiss the importance of doubt, or the parallel danger of ideological certainty.  We must be open to the possibility of even radical theory change. And, as Rabbi Hannah spoke about last night, we must be open to the different narratives, perspectives, each of us brings, even to the same events.  But once we could be pretty sure that those stories, even the ones with which we disagreed, came with an aspiration of truth, were told with integrity.  Now, even the idea that there is truth or fact is treated with disdain.  So what we have lost is even more precious – the ability to trust.

Never has the line in the Vidui Zuta, the short confession of Yom Kippur, the Ashamnu, been more resonant: “Tafalnu sheker” – we recite five times during today.  We have not just lied, but “tafalnu”.  Literally, we have plastered our buildings with lies, built an edifice of falsehood.

The contrast between this disdain for truth, manipulation of truth, and the emphasis on truth in our tradition is stark.   The line in our confession comes from Job.  Suffering Job, attempting to make sense of his world, of his predicament, experiences his so-called friends building a false narrative around his pain.  He challenges them – “atem toflei sha’ker” – you are builders of lies.
Almost 3,000 years ago, the prophet Isaiah called out those who tell their own versions of truth, who twist and manipulate for profit, condemning those who “call evil good, and good evil; who present darkness as light and light as darkness, say that bitter is sweet and sweet bitter”.  There is no tolerance in our texts for this type of undermining falsehood.

Because truth – the pursuit of truth as an ideal rather than the specific truths on which we might disagree – truth as an ideal is valued in our tradition; is understood as being sacred.  According to the rabbis “chotamo shel hakadosh baruch hu emet” – the seal of God is truth.  In u’n’taneh tokef later today we will read of God’s throne “v’teishev alav b’emet’ – “truth rests upon it”.
Part of our fundamental purpose in life as Jews is imitatio dei – to echo God in our lives.  Throughout today we will repeatedly recite in the 13 attributes of God, “rav chesed v’emet” – “abundant in loving kindness and truth”.

In that word, “emet,” truth, the rabbis found warnings as to what happens when the pursuit of truth is diminished.  They observed that the letters – aleph, mem, tav – are the first, middle and final letters of the Hebrew alphabet.  That is, that we share an understanding, a pursuit of truth, that we are not knowingly false, is fundamental to our ability to use language, to communicate with one another.

They also noted that those letters – aleph, mem, tav – are the final letters of the final three words of the first account of creation.  Words that we will read in a few weeks on Simchat Torah; words that we sing in Kiddush at home each Erev Shabbat, proclaiming that God finished the work of creation “bara Elohim laasot” – that God had made.  Truth, that is, is central to Creation.  It is central to the very fabric of the world that we inhabit.  Without it – without our pursuit of truth, our certainty that one another are not knowingly using falsehoods – our ability to exist as a shared society is diminished.

As realists, they also understood truth’s challenges.  The same observation that the letters of Emet are spread through the alphabet, also drew the rabbis of the Talmud to another conclusion.  Why are the letters of “sheker” – falsehood, letters that are found grouped together, contiguous letters in the alphabet, while the letters of emet are spread out, far apart?  The answer could have been written for today, “Shikra sh’chiach, kushta la sh’chiach” – falsehood is common, truth is not so common.

And so, to us – to our challenge, our response.

If, as Jews, we value truth, we see it as fundamental to the existence of the world, to our ability to communicate with one another; if we understand it as sacred, as the mark of God; if it is our aspiration, then we must be willing to fight for it.

In part, we must be willing to see behind the lies.  Keith Kahn Harris’s hugely significant contribution to this conversation – his book came out just last week – is to emphasise the importance of understanding the reality of those he terms denialists.  He asks us to recognise that their denial of truth reflects a predicament of our making.  The challenge to truth is because liberal values have won out, because we have created a world in which some need to hide that which they truly wish to say, and do so behind denial.  There are big issues, Keith warns, around the corner about how we relate to those whose desires differ so starkly from our own.  Keith warns us to prepare for a post-denial world, in which those sentiments come to the fore.

But until that time, we must be careful not to hide behind liberal relativism, not to fall into the knot that Christiane Amanpour identified.   We must be alert, affirm that truth matters, call out the lies as lies.  Yes, we must be open to the stories of others – but also alert to the possibility that it involves deception, distortion, manipulation of our human nature.

We must be willing to keep pursuing the truth, even where this feels obvious, or utterly fruitless.  Not merely to challenge untruths – remember every repetition of a statement increases its credibility even where it is to challenge it – but to keep speaking the truth.  Professor of Linguistics, George Lakoff has written, specifically of Donald Trump, though it applies more widely, “You can help him by repeating his words and lies. You can help him by focusing outraged attention on his antics.  Or we can work together to redirect the energy, counteract rather than react, and reframe the conversation… let’s ignore his antics and make a positive, proactive argument.”  That is our task.

And we must pass this task on to our children.  They who live in a very different world to that of even half a decade ago, whose relationship with information is utterly transformed from that which most of us understand.  The most important mitzvah – biblical commandment – for us to teach our children at this moment is the admonition in Exodus “mi-dvar sheker tirchak” – keep far away from a falsehood.  Not merely ‘do not lie’, but be mindful of the falsehoods that surround them, and their potential consequences.  Not to speak untruths, for they do not know where they will end up in our modern world, and not to repeat those of others.  Not to be amused by them, to think they’re funny, but to recognize what taking truth lightly will do for the society they are destined to inherit.
Of course, we must internalise that message too, careful to recognise our own vulnerability, whoever we are.  One of the themes of today is to recognise our own weakness.  And in this respect, weak we are – Repetition Induced Truth tells us that.

After the morning blessings every morning, the first words we say after we have woken up and got out of bed – liturgically at least – are a powerful expression of our responsibility: “L’olam y’hei adam y’rei shamayim ba-seiter k’va-galui, u’modeh al ha-emet, v’doveir emet bilvavo” – “We should always be in awe of God in private as well as in public; speak the truth aloud and mean it in our heart”.

Now, more than ever, in this age of “tefalnu sheker”, may we every day meet the task of speaking the truth aloud.  May we through this year ahead meet the challenge of meaning it in our hearts.