Rabbi Simon, a 3rd century AD sage, helps us begin to understand why truth and peace are constantly at variance with one another. Drawing on various Bible verses, Rabbi Simon presents an imaginary dispute in the heavenly courts over the creation of man, of which it was said, “let us [God and the angels] create man.” But the angels were divided over whether this was a good idea. Those promoting truth and peace opposed the idea because they knew that, being unyielding, truth breeds strife, and, being equally yielding, peace produces lies.
The conflict between peace and truth can perhaps be best seen in the Torah, the Law of Moses, the ultimate source of truth. Truth cannot be damaged, or it is no longer truth. This, consequently, is why even a misplaced jot or tittle disqualifies an entire Torah scroll.
Judaism, however, long ago learned from the Torah itself that strict, unyielding enforcement of truth is destructive. Moses broke the tablets because the truth written upon them demanded the destruction of Israel. To avoid this product of truth, the sages laid down the principle that, at times, truth can be suspended, or even altered, for the sake of peace. An example of this principle at work is seen in Jesus’ justifying David eating from the showbread (Matthew 12).
But peace can’t replace truth. If it could, man would no longer be able to tell good from evil, truth from lie. And, whatever the relationship between truth and peace, it is truth that must instruct when and under what circumstances it can be altered. This is only possible when one comes to an understanding of the difference between divine “Truth” and the human “truth” derived from it. It is, therefore, peace under the guidance of truth that allows the two to exist harmoniously.
Consider Zechariah’s call to “love truth and peace” (8:19). It comes at the tail end of a word from the Lord concerning certain fast days becoming “joyful and glad occasions.” But still today, these fasts serve as a reminder of the destruction of the First and Second Temples. The First was destroyed because the Torah, the truth, was disregarded. The Second was destroyed because truth was lorded over peace, leading to unjustified hatred and the collapse of contemporary Jewish society.
Today, this primordial conflict between truth and peace is manifested in the division between the Israeli left and right. For the sake of peace, the left is willing to sacrifice Torah. For the sake of Torah, or the Jewish character of Israel, the right is willing to forego peace. What’s missing from both is the understanding that without an intimate, genuine knowledge of the Torah, or God, if you like, truth is lost, and peace along with it. Both camps are vital to the wellbeing of Israel, which is why they must understand that Israel can’t survive on truth alone, nor can it survive on peace alone. Israel needs both camps, and so they must find common ground. But first, they must be willing to compromise, possibly even on some of their core values.
A step in that direction has already been taken in the form of the Constitution for Israel Project. This initiative is an attempt to find the common ground between a Jewish and a democratic state, between the religious and the secular, the progressive and the conservative. If recent reports related to this project are to be believed, it would seem as though the admonition to “love truth and peace” is achievable, even in our days.
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