40 The Commandment To Admit You’re Wrong
Chananya Weissman
October 14, 2020

Note: A slightly edited version of this article appeared in the September 11 issue of the Jewish Press.  I wrote it way back in May, and am pleased to share it with you now. 

In this age of "debates" in which participants endeavor only to make their opponent look bad and deflect attention from the weaknesses of their own positions, it is important to remember that followers of the Torah are concerned only with the truth -- to the extent that they will readily answer challenges against the other position and publicly retract their position when proven incorrect.  Find me a politician who does that today...

Followers of the Torah uphold the fundamental concept of objective truth.  We stand as ambassadors for God, whose seal is Emes, and proclaim the truth without apologies or equivocations.  When we are shown to be wrong about something, we are grateful to adjust our positions accordingly.  While Amalek and his ilk destroy society by spreading falsehood and doubt, obscuring the truth, and even denying that truth exists, we defeat Amalek by speaking the truth and standing for truth. 

The Commandment To Admit You’re Wrong

“It's just a flu.”

“Jews who study Torah won't get it.”

“If you give tzedaka to a certain organization you will be protected.”

“It won't come to Bnei Brak.”

“It will go away when the weather warms up.”

“Moshiach will be here by Pesach. He said so himself to many rabbis.”

What do the above all have in common? They are declarations and predictions that were widely circulated and have proven to be wrong.

What else do they have in common? Virtually no one who made any of these statements admitted that they were mistaken. In most cases they quietly moved on without retracting their words and apologizing for whatever damage they might have caused by misleading people. In some cases, they modified their original position just so they could cling to it.

It is very rare for people to admit that they were wrong about something, even if it is clear to all those around them. The more they believe something (or the more they want to believe it) the more doggedly they will chain themselves to this belief, regardless of the evidence to the contrary.

The Gemara in Shevuos 30B says the following: "The Rabbis taught, from where do we know that a judge should not make a defense attorney for his words? The Torah teaches, “Distance yourself from a false matter.”

Rashi: "If he makes a judgment and his heart is knocking him that he made a mistake, he should not hold fast to his words to bring proofs to make them stand because he is embarrassed to retract, but he should retract in all respects to issue justice according to the truth."

There is a critical lesson in human psychology here. One's instinctive reaction upon sensing that he is wrong about something is to become a defense attorney for that belief. The job of a lawyer is to argue doggedly for one position, even if he knows deep down that it is false. Such behavior is forbidden by the Torah under the commandment to distance oneself from falsehood.

Contrary to another popular belief that must be dispelled, even the greatest of rabbis and most pious of people are vulnerable to this reaction. In addition, judges have the greatest ability to defend faulty beliefs and to get away with it. This is why the commandment is stated specifically in the section addressing judges. They, like everyone else, should not become defense attorneys for their initial beliefs, but should discard them when the truth becomes apparent.

Rashi observes that the motivation to act like a defense attorney is shame. People consider it shameful to ever admit that they were wrong about something. They fail to realize that just the opposite is the case. We admire someone who admits that he made a mistake. We recognize him as a person of integrity. We trust him when he doggedly believes in something, because we know he isn't acting like a defense attorney. Such a person will influence others, whereas someone who desperately grasps at weak arguments to defend his position is easily tuned out. Who has respect for all the talking heads who relentlessly argue a position no matter what?

We all know that everyone makes mistakes. There is no shame in reshaping our beliefs when new information comes to light. The shame is ignoring the new information or crafting arguments against it simply to play the role of defense attorney for a faulty belief.

There are countless examples of this in all aspects of society. There are those who continue to insist that God doesn't want us to return to Israel, despite nearly a century of evidence and mountains of Torah sources to the contrary. There are those who insist that “it can't happen” to the Jews in America, despite the increasingly rapid deterioration of the situation there, and centuries of evidence to the contrary. There are those who cling to their sources of information and decision-making – be it governments, the media, certain rabbis, or the people around them – no matter how badly they are misled.

The Torah commands us to seek truth and to discard our old beliefs when they are proven wrong. Our Sages did this without fear or shame when new information came to light. This is why we trust them. This is the example for us to emulate, for our own sake and the sake of those we may influence.

Admitting the truth often requires humility and even changing one's course of action. But that is a small price to pay for discarding a mistake, acting correctly, and being on the side of truth.

Defense attorneys get paid even if they are wrong and even if they lose the case. Those who act as defense attorneys for their own faulty beliefs only pay the price. Ultimately, they only fool themselves.

“Distance yourself from falsehood” is a difficult commandment, but a fundamental gift, relieving us from the urge to chain ourselves to what is untrue. Those who retract their erroneous positions should not be ashamed. They will be admired and respected as people of integrity, and will give others the strength to admit their mistakes as well.