This a text version of my Shabbat sermon from 3/20/17
Some of you will remember the TV show Dragnet, which ran on first NBC and then ABC through the entire decade of the 50s. Week in and week out a dedicated audience would tune in to watch the adventures of the plain spoken detective – what was his name? Joe Friday (Jack Webb) – as he methodically and systematically investigated crimes, solved cases, and brought in the bad guys. There was very little actual action in the show. Occasionally Joe Friday might draw his gun and run after a criminal. But for the most part he went about his job using his mind, interviewing people who were connected to the case, figuring out what the truth was by assembling the facts. And if you remember the show you also remember Joe Friday’s famous phrase, which became part of the vernacular – what was it? Just the facts, ma’am, just the facts.
It is sad to say, but it is hard to imagine Joe Friday being successful in today’s world. The criminals he chased down were not psychopaths or serial killers, they didn’t have some kind of infernal plot to destroy an entire city like so many of today’s TV evildoers. There was no violence in the show, I don’t recall even a fist fight, there were no explosions, no car chases. There were no fancy cars for that matter – I think Joe Friday drove around an old Buick – and no fancy clothes – just a plain grey suit, a white shirt, and a dark skinny tie. And of course in those days, in the 50s – admittedly a simpler time – there were actual facts – something that today seems to be regularly called into question.
So in Joe Friday’s world, he could say ‘just the facts, ma’am,’ and everyone knew what he meant. There was a fundamental assumption shared by all that facts could be determined, and once they were determined they were not debated. Something either happened or it didn’t. A person said something, or they didn’t say something. If you read something in the newspaper or heard Walter Cronkite say it on TV you believed it was true.
But today we seem to be in a different place. Facts are debated, not accepted. People seem to make assertions about what did or did not happen based more on what they wished had transpired, as opposed to what actually did. This isn’t entirely new, and no question it is something that has been going on in politics in one way or another for awhile, but it does feel like it has reached a new level. Certainly a number of assertions that have been made by the current administration don’t seem to have any factual support at all, from inaugural numbers to wire tapping accusations to voter fraud. But the left does it too. You may remember the uproar a couple of weeks ago from the about Uber, the car service. There were claims that when JFK airport taxi drivers joined in a strike against the administration’s immigrant policy Uber had rushed in and taken advantage. Almost immediately the left started a #deleteUber campaign to try to get people to stop using the service. The problem was, there was no actual evidence that Uber had done anything wrong. To put it simply, there were no facts to support the claim that the left was making.
And it is precisely about this issue that Judaism might have something to teach us. Going all the way back to Torah times Judaism has insisted on the use of evidence to determine what has happened or not happened. The Torah teaches that witnesses – first hand, eye witnesses – must be consulted when criminal cases are tried. And one eye witness is never sufficient – at least two are required, because when two people say the same thing it is more likely to be true. Rabbinic law develops this idea further in the Talmud, creating strict criteria for determining whether witnesses should be considered trustworthy, and also describing an extensive procedure for examining witnesses to make sure that the actual facts of any given case are being uncovered. Joe Friday might not be very comfortable with the way we deal with facts today, but had he studied the Jewish laws about evidence requirements and witnesses he would have been in very familiar surroundings.
The Torah also insists that the system of law should not be influenced by the power, or lack thereof, of those involved in any given case. That is to say that a poor person should not be believed just because they are poor – nor should a wealthy person, a person in a position of power, be believed just because of who they are. The very same requirements of evidence apply either way. Neither the low person or the high person on the totem pole should get any preferential treatment. Torah law is insistent on this point, teaching in Leviticus 19 the following: לא תישא פני דל ולא תהדר פני גדול – do not favor the poor or show deference to the rich – rather judge them fairly. (19:15)
In fact I would argue that the Torah seems to believe that even God is not to be believed without verification. In this morning’s portion we read about the sin of the golden calf. It is a story we know well – Moses at the top of the mountain, communing with God, receiving the law, while the people at the mountain’s base are worshipping an idol. At a certain point God says to Moses ‘hey, you had better get down there, the people are out of control, and they are worshipping an idol.’ And Moses’ first reaction is to defend the people and try to calm God down. Once he does this Moses goes down himself, and he is carrying the tablets that God gave him. What does he doe with those tablets? He breaks them! When? Not until he sees with his own eyes what has actually transpired.
God have given Moses testimony. God had told Moses exactly what was going on. If he fully believed God, why didn’t he just break the tablets right then and there? But he doesn’t – he waits until he has seen it with his own eyes, until the actual evidence is right in front of him – and at that point, the facts become clear to him, and he acts, shattering the tablets and punishing the people. It seems that even with God the tradition insists on actual evidence to establish the facts, to determine what has or has not happened.
I think we should insist on the same. When statements are made today, regardless of who makes them, when stories are reported, regardless of whether we hear about them on Fox News or read about them in the NY Times, we should follow our tradition and wait for the evidence to appear. A claim without evidence is not a fact – it is simply a claim. That was not good enough for Moses, even though the claim came from God. It was certainly never good enough for Joe Friday. And it shouldn’t be good enough for us either. Just the evidence, ma’am, just the evidence.