(Avot 6:6) There are 48 ways to acquire Torah, including...ma'amido al ha'emet, causing someone to take a truthful stand...
(Numbers 35:12) ...v'lo yamut harotze'ach ad omdo lifnei ha'eidah lamishpat; ...the manslayer shall not die until he has stood trial before the witnessing-community.
The right to avoid self-incrimination is central to American law. Yet, a voluntary confession may be introduced in a trial or plea bargain as a means of convicting the accused.
Jewish law elevates the right to avoid self-incrimination to the level of obligation. No relative of an accused is eligible to testify on the grounds that he or she has vested interests in the outcome. In a peculiar piece of logic, a person's own testimony is excluded because "a person is his/her own relative," and therefore a tainted witness.
On what basis, then, do I confess my sins as part of repentance? Can I testify to my transgressions before the divine Court of Law? Perhaps more crucially, can I admit to a wronged victim that I am the cause of his or her suffering?
There are differences between truth and justice. Truth is (at least in theory) objective. Justice requires subjective judgment. Or, perhaps, truth exists independent of context. Justice cannot exist without context. And while consequences are part and parcel of justice, truth simply is. The presence or absence of consequence does not change the truth.
This last distinction is reflected in how we relate to God. Though we attribute judgment and justice to God, the nature of God is truth, that is, God simply is. When we recite the Sh'ma, we immediately follow the last words of the third paragraph ("I am the Lord your God") with the affirmation, "True!" And while we consider God's word, Torah, to contain instruction on law and justice, we refer to it as "the Torah of truth." It stands on its own.
When truth is removed from justice, it is viewed without prejudice. It is probably impossible for any person to transcend the influences on perception that come with being a human being, but the closer we come to that standard, the more clearly we see the truth. When such clarity of vision occurs, it enables the scales of distortion to fall from our eyes. Not only does the truth seem less threatening, so does justice that is based on the truth.
In that sense, honest confession before God and acknowledgment of culpability to the human victims of our mistakes are recognitions of truth, not a courtroom admission. When we accept our actions and ourselves for what they are, we are as genuine as we can possibly be, distilled to the essence of our thoughts and actions. We are not barricaded behind the constructs of justifications, whether they are just or unjust.
The wisdom of the tradition in prohibiting a person from self-incrimination is not just a legal maneuver. It is also a keen insight into the difficulty of knowing the truth about one's self. So the teaching from Avot does not speak of "taking a truthful stand," but of "causing someone to take a truthful stand." A witness to guilt or innocence is asked to make a judgment. But a witness to the truth is asked to affirm what simply is. And by refraining from judgment, the person who causes another to see the truth disarms the fear that comes with anticipating consequences.
At the same time, the person who refrains from judgment comes to understand the value of truth, which is the nature of God and the essence of Torah. Leading another person to the truth leads one's self to acquire Torah.
Is there a way to cultivate becoming ma'amido al ha'emet? The meditation that precedes removing the Torah scroll from the ark on Shabbat morning provides the right mindset. (You can find it at the top of page 140 in Sim Shalom for Sabbath and Festivals and in Sim Shalom on pages 398 [the fifth line] and 399 [the first full paragraph in English – though the translation puts the meditation in the plural, while the Aramaic original is in the singular]). Read the words slowly and with intention; think about what the word "k'shot/truth" means in the meditation; commit the words to memory. Allow yourself to be a non-judgmental witness to your friends' truth.