Rav Lopiansky's model of truth-seeking as applied to the recent election results
A recent column, "Get Thee Gone," critical of President Trump's post-election behavior, attracted a fair amount of criticism. I learned a good deal from that criticism, including something about myself — to wit, all things considered, I prefer praise to criticism (about which more later.)
As far as most — not all — of the critics were concerned, any column that mentions the president is either pro-Trump or anti-Trump. And anything that is not 100 percent pro-Trump is, by definition, anti-Trump. No further analysis of the points made is required.
The columns I have written praising the president — for breaking with the conventional wisdom on Middle East peace-making, the plight of the working class, the Chinese threat, and campus due process, to name a few — availed me not. No criticism can be brooked.
That Manichean view of the universe, especially with respect to the president, strikes me as inimical to religion. It elevates the president to a stature that he cannot bear. A number of Christian conservatives have written about how pro-Trump boosterism has corrupted many evangelicals. And what they have written applies with equal force to elements of our own community; just substitute Orthodox Jews for evangelicals.
"Some evangelicals in the last four years have clearly made Trump their god and MAGA their religion," a recent Washington Times editorial opined. "It is perfectly possible to vote for Trump, his judges, for his tax cuts, without becoming an obeisant loyalist.... Yet many signed their souls over."
OF NO LESS CONCERN to me was the discovery that I'm not quite as impervious to criticism or as immune to the lure of praise as I imagined. And that recognition caused me to question my own fealty to truth.
Fortunately, the very week my column appeared, I came across two essays by Rav Aaron Lopiansky in his collection of essays on Sefer Bereishis, Golden Apples: Reflections on the Parsha, focusing on Yaakov Avinu's middah of emes. The first, "Yaakov: Emes Clarified," explores the relationship of emes to Avraham's middah of chesed and Yitzchak Avinu's primary middah of yirah.
The synthesis represented by Yaakov is not just a matter of mixing chesed and yirah in a blender. Reaching emes can never be made automatic: It requires daas (discernment) to understand all aspects of chesed, including its dangers, and similarly with respect to yirah.
Whenever one is presented with two opposing positions, writes Rav Lopiansky, he should start with the assumption that "there are true points to both positions [and] that disagreements arise from the fact that each person views the issue from only one particular angle." That is precisely why we learn in chavrusa — to subject our understandings to another perspective, and thereby come closer to reaching the amito shel Torah.
Of late, I have reached out to a number of old friends, all of whom are considerably to my left politically, in order to subject my ideas and arguments to their critiques and to exit the echo chamber in which most of us live.
I also try to limit my reading to those who meet Conor Cruise O'Brien's definition of an intellectual as "one who can admit when another has made a point in a debate" and avoid partisans who have signed up for one team or another, and whose every utterance is meant to advance their team.
Another essay by Rav Lopiansky in the same volume, "Luz: Eternity's Epicenter," starts with the question: Why does the Torah mention that the place where Yaakov slept was formerly known as Luz? Chazal speak of Luz variously as a place, a type of nut, and as a bone in the spinal cord. Luz was a city that was never captured — it was impregnable because it had no gate — and whose residents never died as long as they remained in the city. It is also a type of nut that cannot be cracked because it has no "mouth." Finally, it is a bone from which we will be regenerated at techiyas hameisim.
All these different mentions of Luz are connected to the quality of emes. The reason that no one died in Luz, for instance, is because they spoke only the truth. It is from the Luz bone that we will be regenerated because it does not derive its sustenance from the earthly part of our existence, the alma d'shikra (world of falsehood), but from a higher realm of reality.
The attainment of emes, writes Rav Lopiansky, is not just a question of what one sees, but of the ability to attach what one sees to a deeper reality. Calev and Yehoshua saw the same Land that the Spies saw, but they also saw that the Land was sustained by Hashem.
And they maintained the purity of that vision by not allowing the Spies to influence their vision. Moshe Rabbeinu added a yud to Yehoshua's name so that he should be immune to the influence of the Spies, and Calev prayed to be spared at the burial place of the Avos.
But there is a certain tension between the two essays. On the one hand, attaining even an approximation of emes depends on opening oneself up to the perspectives of others and attending to what they say. On the other hand, emes requires one to remain impervious to the influence of others.
Perhaps these are two stages: First, one opens oneself to various perspectives to arrive at emes. But after having done so, one shuts oneself off from further outside influence. But that can't be right. At no point can we be sure that we have attained emes, and thus we must remain open to opposing perspectives.
At most, we can learn from Luz to be alert to our own susceptibility to the good opinion of others — a susceptibility that can only lessen our daas, and accordingly, our ability to separate the wheat from the chaff of various opinions. Armed with awareness or our own vulnerability, we can take steps to protect against it.
I wondered, for instance, in the aftermath of the response to my column, whether I had been influenced in my criticisms of the president by the desire to retain the good opinion of college and law school friends. (I hope not, as I have made similar criticisms more than once over the past four years.)
EVEN AFTER THE ELECTORAL COLLEGE has met, there is still value engaging in Rav Lopiansky's model of truth-seeking as applied to the recent election results. Republicans could begin by acknowledging that President Trump should not have proclaimed victory on Election Night, given that everyone knew that late-counted mail-in votes would trend Democratic. Second, it must be acknowledged that all the anomalies in the world, based on traditional bellwether states and the like, do not constitute the kind of evidence a court would need to overturn an election.
Once ballots are in the ballot box, however they got there, there is little a court can do to subtract from one side's totals. The proper time for challenging election procedures is prior to the election. Finally, Republican claims were ill-served by being conjoined with wild conspiracy theories of FBI or CIA involvement in the alleged fraud, not to mention the long-deceased Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez.
The other side should admit, however, that this was not a normal election. As a consequence of unprecedented mass mail-in voting, 26 million more votes were counted in 2020 than in 2016, despite the lackluster nature of the victor and his minimalistic campaign. The huge number of mail-in votes created enormous potential for fraud, as President-elect Biden argued when he was a senator, and as a bipartisan national commission on electoral fraud found. Voter rolls are notoriously outdated, which means that mailing ballots to every registered voter will result in vast numbers of extra ballots floating around. Moreover, even where the proper voter filled out a ballot, we know little about who procured the ballot and whether it was filled out in private or with the possible assistance or under the influence of a vote harvester. The elderly, ill, and low-information voters are particularly susceptible to such influence.
And while anomalies cannot overturn an election, they can call out darsheini and undermine public confidence in the integrity of the results. Democrats may feel that they have found in mass mail-in voting a formula for victory in future close elections. But such victories could prove pyrrhic and leave them ruling over an ever more bitterly divided country in which over half the populace have lost faith in the voting process. That will serve no one.