To tell the truth?
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To tell the truth?

Interfaith panel examines moral issues in Franklin Lake shul

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From left, the Rev. Donald Hummel, Dr. Ora Horn Prouser, Archpriest Eric Tosi, Joel Wiest, and Rabbi Joseph Prouser

A lie is a lie, right?

It’s black and white, isn’t it?

And in that case, there should be no difference between the way different faith groups define or allow lies. It’s all bad, no?

Of course, if it were that easy, there would be no reason for Rabbi Joseph Prouser of Temple Emanuel of North Jersey to host the panel he has planned for Tuesday night at the shul in Franklin Lakes. And there certainly would be no reason to include representatives of four religious groups – Jewish, Roman Catholic, Russian Orthodox, and Mormon. (Although the three last groups all are Christian, the differences in doctrine and practice between them are huge.)

To moor what could be an extremely abstract conversation to American reality, the panel, formally called “How Much Truth Is Enough?” is anchored firmly to American history. It is part of a new series Rabbi Prouser is calling Moral Literacy, and coincides with the 40th anniversary of Watergate, the scandal based around a so-called third-rate burglary where the president and his men meted out melded bits of truth and lies in a strategy they called a modified limited hangout.

“We have been 40 years in the wilderness, and now we are ready to examine these issues,” he said. Although he is not sure exactly where the discussion will go, “I’m sure that WikiLeaks will be prominent among the subjects we discuss,” he said. “How much truth does the government really owe its people?” Panelists will look at medical issues. “And of course we’ll delve into personal relationships. In our own daily relationships, what are the parameters of truth and honesty?

“I will ask the panelists to draw a distinction between honesty and integrity,” he said. He has given them a chapter from a book by Steve Carter called “Integrity.” “Carter writes that sometimes having integrity in your relationship requires a modification of truth in the most literal sense. Sometimes you have to part from raw honesty to develop integrity in a relationship.” That analysis of human behavior will be included in the evening’s debate.

He is interested in the panel, Rabbi Prouser continued, because “examining current pressing moral issues through a religious lens really emphasizes the relevance that our religious tradition has in the lives of contemporary Jews.” And why the extra fillip of interfaith vantage points? First, he has a personal relationship with each of the panelists, and knows each one to be not only learned but also smart and interesting. “And I think that when Jewish tradition enters the marketplace of ideas, we come out of it with a stronger appreciation and respect for its perspective.

“I don’t think anyone will come out of a panel discussion discredited,” he added quickly. “But I think that in examining the moral tradition that our faith offers, we can only strengthen our understanding by entering into discussion with other faiths.”

Archpriest Eric G. Tosi of Syosset, N.Y., an U.S. Army veteran and the secretary of the Orthodox church in America, now lives in Syosset, but grew up in Passaic. He is his church’s chief administrative officer.

His church, he said, is “heir to the Russian Orthodox church, and it came to this country in 1794 through Alaska,” which at that point belonged to Russia. When Alaska became part of the United States, the church’s headquarters moved down to more accessible and comfortable San Francisco, making it “one of the only churches to come east through the West Coast,” Father Eric said. Its ranks were augmented by the massive waves of immigration from eastern Europe; we are familiar with the Jews who made up much of those waves, but others who crossed the same seas at the same time were Eastern Rite Christian and found their way to the Orthodox church in America.

There are 14 different independent ethnically based Orthodox churches in America, he added; each has its own structure, but they share one theology.

He will look at the question of truth-telling through “an Orthodox background, which is first and foremost biblically based but also patristic,” Father Eric said. Patristic means that the tradition draws heavily from the early church fathers, he explained; the Orthodox church shares its early fathers with the Roman Catholic church, from which it split in 1054.

He is planning to rely on the work of St. John Chrysostom, who lived in the fourth century C.E. “He has a whole chapter on lying,” Father Eric said. “He actually does say that there are certain circumstances in which lying is acceptable. It has to do with salvation.

“He says that we always should be forthright and honest – but there are cases in which it’s important not to have people fall because you are telling the truth.” There are times when a person must be shielded from the terrible truth of his situation, because the abject terror and grief that would result would keep him from saving himself – and his soul. “In the Old Testament, Abraham lied about Sarah being his sister. Jacob lied about Esau.

“But it has to be understood that it is never clear-cut, and that when you do it – when you lie – you are taking it on yourself for the betterment of the other person.” Not surprisingly, this is a particularly Christian concept, he agreed. He told the story of a Russian Orthodox nun, Maria Skobtsova, otherwise known as Mother Maria of Paris, who hid Jews in her house and then went to her death at Dachau to save them. “You are taking on the consequences of that lie. It’s on you,” Father Eric said.

The Rev. Donald Hummel, like Father Eric, knows Rabbi Prouser through their work for the Boy Scouts of America. A Roman Catholic priest, Father Hummel, who has had a long career teaching at the high school and college levels, and whose subjects have ranged from social justice, at one end of the continuum, to criminal justice at the other, now is a chaplain and teacher at Paramus Catholic High School.

He said that interfaith work takes a lot of sensitivity; words are loaded with different meanings for different groups. The word ecumenical, for example, comes from the Greek word for house, and implies a certain insider-ness. Most ecumenical groups include many Christian denominations but are confined to the Christian world, Father Hummel said.

“Truth and integrity are pretty broad concepts,” he said. “There are many ways we can approach them. I’m a Roman Catholic priest, so I’m approaching them from a Christian perspective.” But each panelist’s view of truth and integrity also necessarily is filtered through his or her own life experiences, which makes the mix even more interesting, he said.

Joel Wiest, Toy “R” Us’s senior vice president for finance, also is young man’s stake president and a former stake president and bishop for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. He will offer the Mormon view.

The Jewish perspective on the panel will be presented by Dr. Ora Horn Prouser, who is the vice president and academic dean of the Academy for Jewish Religion in Yonkers N.Y. Dr. Prouser, who is married to Rabbi Prouser, earned a doctorate in Bible from the Jewish Theological Seminary. Her dissertation, fittingly enough, was on the phenomenology of the lie.

Lies are fascinating, Dr. Prouser said, because “it goes beyond being an ethical issue – it’s also a cultural and narrative issue.”

Biblical characters often tell lies to advance the narrative. The prime example of that is Jacob and Isaac; the lie that Jacob told his brother Esau is the necessary springboard into the rest of the Bible. If he had not told that lie, Jacob’s story would have ended almost before it began. “Why was lying comfortable for them? Why do those elements appear with no apparent disapproval?” The Bible’s legal sections specify that lying is unacceptable, she added, and so does the wisdom literature, but the stories do not.

Characters in the Bible do not lie often, she added; that’s why their lies are taken seriously. They are rare and therefore unexpected.

“I came to the conclusion that lying or deception is successful in the Bible when it is used by the weaker party,” she said. “It is very much a tool of the weak. It is not successful when it is used by the stronger party.” Jacob can fool Esau; Abraham can tell Pharaoh that Sarah is his sister, not his wife, and that will keep them safe.

The metaphor is clear.

Despite our deep-seated if irrational view of our people and the land of Israel as being important – being central, in fact, to human history – in fact, “Israel has always been tiny,” Dr. Prouser said, and there never have been many of us, either as Israelites or more recently as Jews. “Here they were with this idea, the covenant, the blessing, yet they were nothing. So a constant motif is the idea that things are not always as they appear.

“The one who looks small actually is great. The one who looks weak is powerful – but not powerful in an obvious way.

“The exile in Babylonia had no land, no Temple, and here they are, still saying that they’re the chosen ones. How do you get away with that? It is because things are not always as they appear.”

And that, of course, brings us back to Watergate.

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