Me and Maimonides — we used to hang out. I actually wrote most of The Guide To The Perplexed.
I wanted to call it Fun Stuff About The Bible, but he thought that no one would buy it.
That, my friends, is an alternative fact — a term that we had never heard until Kellyanne Conway invented it the other day.
She was describing White House press secretary Sean Spicer’s assessment of the number of people who attended the President’s inauguration.
(Cue the creepy Twilight Zone music here).
We Jews know all about alternative facts.
- Biblical anti-Semitism began with an alternative fact. Pharaoh accuses the Israelites of being a foreign influence in his land. He accuses them of dual loyalty. These accusations did not end well. They led to enslavement, the ten plagues, and the Exodus. But, hey — at least Jews get to have dinner together once a year and talk about it.
- Ancient anti-Semitism began with an alternative fact. Manetho, an Egyptian priest in the third century BCE, invented the idea that the Jews had been lepers, and that rather than escaping from Egypt, they had been expelled.
- Medieval anti-Semitism flourished on alternative facts. A small and disheartening list: It started with the alternative fact that Jews were responsible for the execution of Jesus — the myth of deicide; Jews kidnapped children and ate them; Jews poisoned the wells of Europe and were responsible for the Black Death; that Jews stole and tortured communion wafers.
- And, of course, there is Holocaust denial — the subject of the movie Denial, which tells the story of Deborah Lipstadt’s brave battle for the truth.
But, lest those on the political, cultural, and intellectual left smugly believe that alternative facts are limited to those on the right, guess again.
In some ways, the Left invented alternative facts.
Consider one of the greatest tools in their arsenal — anti-Israelism and anti-Zionism.
Such obsessions feed and flourish on alternative facts:
- Jews stole the land of Israel from the Arabs.
- Jews were involved in extensive ethnic cleansing of Palestine.
- Zionism is racism.
- Jerusalem is not really in Israel (check out where the iPhone thinks Jerusalem is located — or, rather, is not located).
Theodor Herzl negotiated with Hitler.
Theoretically, they could have bumped into each other in Vienna, but if they did, Hitler would have been about fifteen years old.
Consider the accusations hurled against Israel.
Many of them are simply repackaged, sanitized versions of medieval and early modern anti-Semitism: Jews are perfidious, murderous and misanthropic.
Throw into the mix, please: moral relativism, the idea that absolute morality is, by nature, ethically imperialist.
That would account for Third World aficionados looking aside as women in sub-Saharan Africa are subjected to the unspeakable brutality of female genital mutilation.
Because, after all, who are we to judge another culture?
I have heard Jewish teenagers tell me: “We have no right to judge the Nazis, because they thought that what they were doing was right.”
Post-modernism has triumphed.
There are no truths. Just opinions.
How do Jews respond to this?
The first task: to remind ourselves, and others, that there are no alternative facts, and there are no alternative moralities.
Isaiah knew what he was talking about. (5:20-22)
Ah, those who call evil good, and good evil; who present darkness as light and light as darkness; who present bitter as sweet and sweet as bitter! Ah, those who are so wise—in their own opinion; so clever — in their own judgment!
And its weird first cousin, intellectual relativism — the domain of alternative facts?
We Jews must loudly proclaim: This is not our first time at this rodeo.
We know how alternative facts operate. We have been the most constant victims of that program.
Reb Nachman of Bratslav, the Hasidic master, understood the world in which we now live. He told a story about a sage who visited a kingdom, and examined their jokes.
Through their humor the sage understood that the entire kingdom was filled with lies and deceptions and that there was no truth anywhere. He did some business in the kingdom, allowing himself to be defrauded in the transaction. He took the case to court, but the court was all lies and bribes. One day he would give them a bribe but the next day they would not recognize him. He went to a higher court, and there too it was all lies. Eventually he came before the Supreme Court, but they too were full of lies and bribery. Finally he came to the king himself.
When he came to the king, he said, “Who are you king over? The whole kingdom is full of lies from beginning to end and there’s no truth in it.”
He began enumerating all the lies in the kingdom. When the king heard his words, he turned his ear to the veil to hear what he was saying. The king was surprised that there was anyone who knew about all the lies in the kingdom.
If we now find ourselves in the kingdom of lies, like the millions who marched this past weekend, we will take to the streets again to scream truth.