Emet – Truth Through A Mussar Lens
Truth, in all its complexity, was the topic of this year’s Mussar Institute virtual kallah (conference). I had opportunities to look at the middah (soul trait) of emet in relationship with others. And I allowed myself to be honest and vulnerable enough to look at my personal truth.
“Is there a middle path of truth?” educator Rivy Poupko Kletenik asked. She suggested that we must seek a balance when it comes to truth, navigating it with peace in relating to others. And she listed Biblical heroes who lied, by omission or commission, for the greater good. They included Moses, Queen Esther and King David.
This issue of truth-telling was a struggle for the ancient Jewish sages when the schools of Shammai and Hillel argued about whether one must always tell the truth. Hillel prevailed. There are times when the truth is not the highest good. Not telling the truth is permitted, in fact even required, to keep the peace, to be kind, to save a life. When a friend and I went shopping, I asked her how she liked a dress I tried on. She responded, “You have nicer things in your closet.” I appreciated the honesty. If she had uttered the same words at a party in front of other people, I would not have been quite so grateful.
A second question we wrestled with was how we honor people whose truths may conflict with ours. Workshop leader Julie Dean cautioned that “our hearts can constrict when confronted with someone who has a truth different from our own.” She maintained that truth overrides the other middot (soul traits) because we can’t be compassionate, humble etc. if we are so stuck in being right that we can’t honor the truth of the other.
That doesn’t mean I accept “the facts” of the other. We can still engage in respectful debate. I can honor the other person, understanding that for whatever reason, their world view is different from mine. My role, as a kallah friend said, is to stay present, listen and witness their truth; to be curious about my perception of their truth and their perception of mine. I liken it to eating in a restaurant with a friend. We sit in a booth; she is facing the front door and I am facing the kitchen. We are having a common experience, enjoying good food and companionship, while our views are totally different.
How do we develop truthful relationships? I have always thought that the way to gain trust is to tell the truth; to be reliable. And The Mash, (Rabbi Chaim Yisrael Blumenfeld), a renowned Israeli teacher, helped me look at it in reverse. “Trust leads to truth. Only trust, honor and love can allow truth,” he said.
And lastly, perhaps most significantly, the conference helped me uncover my own inner truth. Artist Miriam Goodman led us in a powerful meditation and drawing exercise – in itself a stretch for me because I consider myself a “word person” who avoids visual art as creative expression. She had us shed the “truths” we believe about ourselves to reach the pure inner truth of the soul.
In the meditation, we stood in the rain and let our so-called truths wash away, to make ourselves vulnerable enough to find the deepest truth of who we are. My “truths” were the urge to be responsible for everyone and everything, the desire to be perfect and in control, the striving to make everyone happy, and the need to be needed. It was freeing to draw these “truths” spiraling down the drain. Then I sketched the words of my inner truth – I am loved; I am enough; I am a pure soul; I am light, and my purpose is to spread that light. It was a powerful experience.
Later my friend Kate Shane chanted while she played the harp. Her music reached me on a visceral level. My heart hummed, and I jotted down these words:
Accepting another’s truth – and my own
Comes when I listen with my heart as well as my head,
When curiosity replaces judgment,
When being real prevails over being right,
When love triumphs over pride.