Last time I wrote about “post truth.” And now I ask you a related question: is it possible to be totally objective? Was it ever? I know the world of Bible pretty well, and I can say without doubt that nobody is totally objective when they read and interpret it. But what about the world of the world today?
This week’s Torah portion has the long awaited reunion of Jacob and Esau, apart 20 years after Jacob acquired the birthright and blessing from Esau in dubious ways and fled to his uncle Lavan’s home in Mesopotamia because Esau swore he would kill him. They do meet finally, the morning after Jacob has his scary wrestling dream, and we read (Genesis 33:4) that” Esau ran to greet him. He embraced him and, falling on his neck, he kissed him; and they wept.” Seems simple enough, except that the word for“kissed him” has dots over it in the Masoretic text, indicating there is something unusual going on here. Some rabbis think it was genuine, others won’t credit Esau with any decent motives and see the dots as a clue that we should read the word (with a not unreasonable vowel change) as “he bit him” and then sucked his blood. How could the rabbis see this reunion so differently? Well, here it gets really interesting.
You see, none of the rabbis know what really happened when Yaakov and Esau met. That took place more than 1500 years before they lived. All the rabbis really had to go on were the dots. All they could do is try to analyze what the dots meant by looking at the whole Torah text and see if there was something one way or the other they could learn from it. What they learned oftentimes had more to do with their own personal situation than the text. Some were living in peaceful good times, others saw enemies all around, and their analysis most likely reflects that, flowing from their own background and circumstances.
It is no different today, and I am not just talking Biblical interpretation. We see things the way we do because of our own background and life experiences. Nobody is totally neutral in looking at the world. We all have our “agendas.”
There was a good op-ed piece in Wednesday’s Post by Barton Swaim, titled “An indictment of ‘real’ news.” He talks about the post truth phenomenon, then takes on the legitimate press which we think is giving us “real” news. Here too journalists often produce mostly true statements or key lines that infer far more than the facts allow. He gives examples. The reporters were likely trying, however imperfectly, to report the truth. But their backgrounds or biases, in the examples Swaim uses likely coming from a dislike of Trump, sometimes come into play. In general, “there is no such thing as an uninterpreted fact, and journalists are just as much interpreters as reporters of fact.” And Swaim goes on to say that “I suspect that one of the chief reasons so many Americans prefer harrowing Internet rumors to mainstream news is that they’ve grown impatient with journalists’ pretense that their assertions involve only truth, only facts unmediated by opinion or partiality. These Americans may have their gullible moments, but they know better than that.”
If we look at the ongoing press coverage of Israel, or of two key figures in the post election political discussion – Keith Ellison and Steve Bannon – we can see how much interpretation comes into play. I could do without either of these two men in the positions they will hold or hope to hold, but that is my interpretation of who they are and what they stand for.
So, what to do if everything we read may be interpretation not fact? Work hard to find the facts. If Esau had bitten his brother, they both wouldn’t have wept. That’s almost easy. But it’s not easy in today’s world, where it is now clear that there are few facts that are not filtered through the perceptions of the persons reporting them. The Post and the Times and the Wall Street Journal are not neutral observers of the American or world scene, nor are the main media news outlets. But we must keep at it, and try to get our news from a variety of sources not just one, and try to talk with a variety of people not just those we know agree with us. The times demand our careful attention more than ever, but we can still pray that facts and objective reporting will regain more of a footing someday soon.
Best to you and Shabbat Shalom. Bill Rudolph
P.S. If you are in the Washington area, don’t miss the 9th annual Latke Hamantash Debate this Sunday at Beth El at 10AM; it’s a nice break from the news.