Truth: Even Unto Its Innermost Parts

Yom Kippur Morning 5779

September 19, 2018

Rabbi Joseph M. Forman


Shana Tova.

The story is told of the first Shabbat a rabbi spends at the rabbi’s new congregation. When it comes time for the Shema, half the congregation rises, half sits. After the service ends, each side comes running to the rabbi to explain that they are doing it right. The confused rabbi turns to the past president, a wise and trusted source in the community, and asks: “So what is the custom?” “We always sit for the Shema,” one side yells. “No, that’s not true,” the elder says, “that is not our tradition.”

“No, we always stand,” the other side retorts. “No, that’s not true, either. That is not our tradition.”

As each side is arguing why their position is true, the now even more confused rabbi turns to the past-president, looks at the arguing factions and says, “Some are arguing we stand, some are arguing we sit.” And at that moment the respected leader interjects: “That is our tradition!”

Argumentation and disagreement are hallmarks of our Jewish tradition. The Talmud has turned this into an art form. What is at issue is nothing less than getting at the truth of the matter.

Some truths, like the paradox of Schrodinger’s Cat beset by the challenges of quantum indeterminacy, cannot easily be known. These days, however, sadly, in ordinary, real life situations, truth is becoming even harder to come by.

Stephen Crane, an American writing during the Civil War, best known for his Red Badge of Courage, was a formidable poet, as well. Of truth, he penned the following:

“Truth,” said a traveller, “Is a rock, a mighty fortress; “Often have I been to it, “Even to its highest tower, “From whence the world looks black.”

“Truth,” said a traveller, “Is a breath, a wind, “A shadow, a phantom; “Long have I pursued it, “But never have I touched “The hem of its garment.”

And I believed the second traveller; For truth was to me A breath, a wind, A shadow, a phantom, And never had I touched The hem of its garment.

Truth, these days, is no longer a mighty fortress. It has come under attack and is looking more and more like a shadow.

The Rand Corporation, a non-partisan, global policy think-tank, recently published a study they have entitled: “Truth Decay.”

In this study, the scholars at Rand set out to explore what they are calling “our country’s current fraught relationship with objective truths.” One of the most interesting aspects of this study is the historical precedent for what today we know by the term “fake news.”

While he didn’t use the term, John Adams, who served as our nation’s 2nd president, was not pleased with the way he was depicted in The Philadelphia Aurora.

In response to the assertion that a free press advances knowledge by creating an informed public, scoffing, Adams pushed back, declaring: “There has been more new error propagated by the press in the last ten years than in the 100 years before.”

The year was 1798, yet the charge feels shockingly modern. So much so, that one can readily surmise that if President Adams were to have issued this same statement in 2018, “it’s easy to imagine, that, at just 112 characters, he might have tweeted [his message] instead.”

Its 220 years later, and truth in the media is still being challenged.

This problem is especially acute in this day and age when so much of what is purported to be fact is suspect, and what is patently false is embraced as true by those who so desire its veracity.

People are claiming, with a straight face and remarkable steadfastness, that objectively true information is but “alternative facts” – a term coined to lend credibility to a firmly held conviction, in spite of it being a glaring falsehood — and outright fiction passes for “news” because to someone’s ears it possesses “truthiness” – something felt to be true, even if the matter in question has no accuracy or truth whatsoever. Fake news, indeed!

The scholars at the Rand Corporation got it right when they titled their study “Truth Decay!”, as it was just a month ago when the President’s personal attorney, in defense of his client, told a national television audience that “truth isn’t [even] truth.”

To make matters worse, now we have learned of the all-too-real proliferation of fake Facebook accounts designed and promulgated by nefarious entities, solely for the purpose of muddling and exploiting political differences between us.

And thanks to Photoshop and on-line content created by bots, we are no longer able to distinguish between the real-time visual presentation of actual events and doctored images.

This past March, a doctored computer image of high school student Emma González had her tearing in half a piece of paper that was made to look like the U.S. Constitution. It went viral. In the real image, this young activist, a survivor of the tragic school shooting in Parkland, Florida, is shredding a paper target from a gun range.

Given the multiple instances in which truth is distorted, language no longer means what it says, and the myriad ways by which we are all so easily deceived, we may well ask: what CAN we know for certain? What, anymore, is TRUTH?

I graduated from Brandeis University with a degree in philosophy. The motto of Brandeis is “Truth – even unto its innermost parts.” And the logo even has the Hebrew word for truth, EMET, in its center.

While open inquiry and the pursuit of truth were hallmarks of Justice Brandeis, for whom the school was named, we learned there that Truth is not easily found.

Establishing truth, Brandeis believed, was an essential component in any Democracy. And establishing truth is essential in any historical recollection, in any scientific research, in any philosophical argument. Even in the realm of religious thought, truth is fundamental! That’s what those rabbis in the Talmud were so concerned with.

For us, Judaism possesses truth, not because other faiths do not, and not because every word in our sacred texts is historically accurate or the words we have uttered today are all absolute truths about the nature of God or our world or the events depicted in our Torah reading for this morning are historically accurate. In the words of Rabbi Lawrence Kushner: “Some things are true, not because they happened once, but because they happen again and again and again.”

Judaism possesses truth because it gives expression to the values that we hold to be true. And when our traditions no longer ring true, we move them to the shelves of history — as we have done with gender inequality in our liturgy, prayers for revenge against heathens, and with expressions of thankfulness that we were not born women. And when words and ideas we inherit from earlier generations ring false, we often ascribe to them that they are expressions of the hopes and aspirations of their authors. We have done this with words from our Grace After Meals — which states that righteous people have never gone hungry — and with countless other reforms and new understandings we have brought to our ever-evolving faith. Judaism possesses truth, like all religions, when it successfully engages us in finding meaning and purpose in our lives.

Admittedly, the idea that something can be of value to us, yet not possess absolute truth, is a difficult idea to grasp.

There is a Midrash, (Midrash Rabba Genesis 8:5) a Rabbinic parable, that tells the story about the creation of human beings.

Rabbi Shimon said, “At the moment the Holy One chose to create the first human being, the ministering angels broke up into factions.

Some of them said, “Create him,” while others said, “Don’t do it.”

Lovingkindness said: Create him, for he will do acts of lovingkindness.

Truth said: Don’t create him, for he is drenched in lies.

Righteousness said: Create her, for she will do much Tzedakah.

Peace said: Don’t do it, for she is essentially quarrelsome.

What did the Holy One do? God cast Truth down to the earth. (Daniel 8:12) The ministering angels said: Sovereign of the Universe, why do You shame truth which is the leader of Your court? But, the Midrash concludes with a verse from Psalms: “Truth will arise from the earth.” (Psalms 85:11-12) So what can it mean that “God cast truth down to the earth” and that “truth thereafter should arise from the earth? “ The rabbis are trying to teach us that truth has been placed in our hands. It is we who are responsible for ascertaining truth not by looking to the heavens to reveal it to us, but through our thoughtful and intelligent debate, by struggling honestly to uncover it.

When we are able to distinguish between real facts and the falsehoods of wishful thinking, truth will not eludes us.

And when we come to understand that debate, honest debate, demands that we are honest with ourselves about what is actually true, then indeed, for the betterment of all of us, truth will arise from the earth.

May our impassioned debates be in the service of truth — even unto its innermost parts — that we might all find blessing in the New Year.