Have you heard the one about how Jewish space lasers caused the California wildfires? A joke? Unfortunately, not. A few years ago, we read that Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene in which she blames California’s wildfires on the Pacific Gas and Electric Company in conjunction with the Rothschilds — the Jewish family most prominently featured in anti-Semitic conspiracy theories for about two centuries. Apparently, according to Greene, “Rothschild Inc” started the fires using a space laser, and its goal was to clear the way for a high-speed rail project.
If you haven’t been following the news, there are groups that still claim there is a global cabal seeking to take over the world. Sound familiar? Last Shabbat, during the hostage situation in Colleyville, Texas, we heard this again. As an identifiable minority, we Jews have been the butt and victims of conspiracy theories seemingly forever.
There were some isolated pogroms, deadly mob attacks, on Jewish communities in the ancient world. For example, on the island of Elephantine in the Nile of ancient Egypt, Jews preparing for Passover were attacked by their neighbors for slaughtering sheep, sacred to the Egyptians at that time. But violence escalated as the Big Lie that Christianity was built upon spread with the canonization of Christian Scripture and through the preaching and writing of the early Church Fathers: that we Jews refused to accept the divinity of Jesus because we are the agents of the Devil and do everything we can to undermine God’s work, killing Jesus for starters (though the truth is that only the Romans controlled the death penalty in Jesus’ time).
Recognizing that Christian anti-Judaism provided fertile soil for popular local support for the Nazi’s efforts to exterminate the Jews of Europe, the Catholic Church, and many Protestant Churches, officially rejected the anti-Jewish theology, upon which Christianity was founded, but did not systematically change their curriculums or the minds of many of their pastors and parishioners that for centuries had integrated anti-Judaism in everything from catechism to Christmas and Easter pageants.
By the Middle Ages, anti-Jewish conspiracy theories expanded to include the “blood libel:” that Jews slaughter Christian babies to use their blood in our rites, especially baking matzah. Never mind the truth that we Jews don’t even eat the blood of animals according to our kosher laws and that we hold all human life sacred. By the 19th Century, a Russian forgery called the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, politicized anti-Jewish into a full blow anti-Semitic world conspiracy theory, still popular to this day, claiming a Jewish cabal sought control over the world (evoked in the Rothchild laser conspiracy theory spread by Greene before her election but never renounced by her.)
Why do I share this painful historical review with you as we prepare for Shabbat? Because in Exodus, we have the very first recorded anti-Jewish conspiracy theory, with Pharaoh as its author! And because the only antidote to conspiracy theories can be found in our Torah reading this week, Yitro (Exodus 18:1-20:23), when we read the Ten Commandments.
In the beginning of the book of Exodus Pharaoh spins the first Big Lie: No matter the Israelites have already lived peacefully in Egypt for generations, their population has grown and thus they are a danger because they will (not might, but will) join forces with Egypt’s enemies and overwhelm the Egyptians. The Egyptians buy his story and the plan to enslave us. No one asks discerning questions about where is proof of a credible threat. No one dares contest or protest this lie, for fear they would be committing literal or political suicide. Only the midwives who care for the Israelite women refuse to acquiesce, citing derogatory tropes Pharaoh would approve of, about how the Israelite women birthing quickly, that means like animals. The midwives do this to protect themselves when Pharaoh asks why they could not slaughter the male Israelite children.
These midwives are the first righteous rescuers in history. When most around them either passively or actively went along with Pharaoh’s Big Lie, these midwives did what they thought was right, what higher morality called them to do, at great risk to themselves and their families. Imagine how history would have been so different if more nations stood up united against the Big Lies of anti-Semitism that the Nazis sold them?
We read the third of the Ten Commandments, “You shall not take God’s name in vain (20:7). Rashi explains: We are not to use God’s name to make more plausible something we know to be untrue, for example swearing about a stone pillar that it is made of gold. You’d think this should be obvious: how could anyone think a stone pillar is made of gold. But as we know from recent history: if you repeat a lie often enough, more and more people will believe it. The only way to combat such lies is to confront them head on immediately and unambiguously. Otherwise, those lies will spread and grow and become the kind of Big Lies that damage the very fabric of human relationships and civil society.
Here is the lesson from our Torah reading this morning: The danger presented by twisting the truth is so insidious and dangerous to the kind of just and civil society God wants and commands us to create and sustain, that God placed as the third commandment, the commandment not to twist the truth, and certainly not to justify such lies as God’s work or will! This is not easy work. But, to paraphrase the Talmudic sage Rabbi Tarphon, neither are we free to exempt ourselves from it.