RH Day 1 5774 The Pitfalls of Truth
A] I am calling this sermon, “the Pitfalls of Truth”, but it is, in fact, a sermon in favor of intellectual modesty and against fundamentalism. For fundamentalism is an almost unavoidable pitfall of the supreme value we assign to truth, and true intellectual modesty and programmatic philosophical self-doubt is the only corrective that stands in the way of sliding into that abyss, which we see altogether too much.
Now we generally believe that truth is a supreme value. It is known as one of the signatures of God.
“the seal of the Holy one praised be He” [Sanh. 64a]
The Hebrew for truth is אמת
It is made up of the first letter of the alphabet, aleph -- because God existed before existence; the central letter of the alphabet, mem -- for he fills the universe, there is no other god; and the last letter, taf -- for God will continue beyond all things and none will endure beyond Him. [Y Sanh. 1:1]
And we are to emulate God in that respect -- therefore, the Torah commands “מדבר שקר תרחק” -- “distance yourself from untruth” and includes among the ten commandments the prohibition of being a false witness. The value of truth, at first blush, is supreme.
B] But you are also aware of that fact that there are times when truth takes a back seat to other values.
The Talmud flags this on two occasions (Ket. 16b).
“How should one celebrate with regard to a bride?” the Talmud asks. “Bet Shammai says: Tell it like it is. But Bet Hillel says: Say that she is a beautiful and righteous bride.”
“But what if she is not,” the Shammaites objected -- doesn’t the Torah command that we should “distance ourselves from untruth?” But the Hillelites retorted: The rabbis say that one must always comport oneself in a way that accounts for others’ feelings (even at the price of momentary untruth).
Aha, you say. How can the rabbis overrule a Biblical command? -- That is why the Talmud makes the point that we can learn such behavior from God himself (I’ve spoken of this before).
When Sarah is told that she will finally give birth, she laughs and says “How can this be, I no longer have my period” and adds, (uncharitably it seems to me), “and my husband is so old.” God reports that to Abraham, imprecisely, as “Sarah laughed and said, ‘How can this be? I’m so old!” This proves, says the Talmud, that even God colors the truth in the interests of peaceful relations between people (Yev. 65b, Gen. 18:12-13)
and we are encouraged to emulate God’s best traits.
Truth, it seems, is second to sensitivity.
B] We are also asked to pursue godly behavior, proper behavior, halakhic rectitude -- and in the interest of God’s law we are to teach it and bring others to it, even to the extent that we are obligated to correct their behavior when it does not meet those standards.
Yes, that is a bit different from the evangelical Christian drive to spread the good news -- we are often irked when Christian evangelists come knocking at our doors, and Judaism has not been a prostelytizing religion for some time. But we do happily accept converts, while we are quite unhappy about the prospect of intermarriage, much less conversion out.
Still, the Jewish version of that teaching, of our insistence that everyone follow the right path, is applicable, in house, to our own nation. About them, internally, the Biblical verses are clear, from ושננתם לבניך (Deut 6) insisting that we should each teach them to our own children to הוכח תוכיח את עמיתך (Lev. 19) -- aggressively correct your fellow whenever you see him doing wrong. So when we have the power to enforce the halachah you might expect that we would try to do so -- and in some cases that does indeed happens. Notoriously, the rabbinate in Israel today enforces Jewish law in the areas of their control, in marriage and divorce and recently of conversion. And we do so too, insofar as we have community norms, let us say, of kashrut, that we enforce in the synagogue kitchen and community settings.
Here, too, though, Judaism has been careful to insist that civility trumps halachic propriety.
The key verse that teaches that we should be vigilant to keep our neighbors behaving with halakhic propriety -- is also used to limit the natural tendency to overreach when zealously trying to insist on what is right. The language is obscure, but this is the primary understanding that you will find, say, in Rashi
הוכח תוכיח את עמיתך ולא תשא עליו חטא
says the Bible.
Aggressively correct your fellow -- but do not cause him embarrassment.
Correct him, but not in public.
Correct him, but only in so far as your fellow is going to be receptive.
“For just as it is a mitzvah to speak up where you will be heeded, it is a mitzvah NOT to speak where you will not be heeded.” (Yev. 65b) R. Ila’a taught in the name of R. Eleazar bar Shimon.
C] There is an old debate about the size required in a Kiddush cup. There are those who hold by the smaller measure, but the increasingly dominant position in the yeshivah world is to insist on the larger measure. It is, almost all today agree, the only right thing to do.
But maybe thirty years ago the grandson of the great sage the Chafetz Chaim reignited the debate by publishing that he had been handed down his grandfather’s Kiddush cup -- and it was the smaller measure. Scandalous. Cannot be. The great Chafetz Chaim getting it wrong?
An ultra-Orthodox cousin of mine argued that people were smaller then, so the smaller cup was permissible then -- but today we have better nutrition and are larger (he is six four or five, a big man) so we may no longer use such a small cup.
But -- here I return us to our theme, that sensitivity ought to trump truth -- it was reported of R. Eliyahu Dessler, known as the “spiritual counselor” of one of the main Ashkenazic yeshivas in Palestine in the early twentieth century, a man whose primary work has appeared in English under the title “Strive for Truth” -- that he used to use the smaller measure, but recognizing the truth of the claims that the larger was right, switched.
Had he suddenly come to understand the truth of the matter? No, his students explained. His wife had given him the smaller Kiddush cup, an heirloom of her family, and he would not offend her by not using that gift. When she died, he did what he had always felt was right, and switched to the larger measure. But as long as she was alive -- the truth of the measure placed behind the desire to honor her.
I have that tradition in my family -- passed orally from my maternal great grandfather, a rabbi in Toronto, who permitted himself coffee in non-kosher homes, because the chance that the mug had been used for soup (very real in those days of more limited varieties of china in much poorer homes) was of less significance than the offense given by refusing.
D] This Torah of Caring, unfortunately, has given way to a Torah of Crudeness in the name of God, a zealousness in dedication to truth that too often becomes a fundamentalism that knows no bounds. A חלול השם that misrepresents religion and misrepresents God. We need to practice intellectual humility.
There was recently an election in Israel for the office of chief rabbi -- there are two, one Sefardic and one Ashkenazic -- in which the Zionist religious faction ran opponents to the designees of the ultra-Orthodox factions. Up steps a rabbi, a leader of the ultra-Orthodox faction, and brands the also Orthodox religious Zionists “Amalek” -- quintessential evil -- and he wonders aloud if they are even Jews.
How can he -- a religious man -- say such vile and untruthful things? But all’s fair in the name of the battle for the greater mission / the defense of Torah and of God’s Truth. Could it be that untruth is excusable in the name of truth?
We see it in this country in an compromising politics that does not know how to acknowledge an other side.
And it is not just this failure of civility, but the failure of intellectual modesty that is so concerning. Because one who possesses “truth”, who knows without a doubt that his opinion is “right” is easily drawn into untenable insistence on his own view.
But one with the humility to understand that his view, though he believes it right, may yet be matched by another equally fairly held has to accommodate difference and will not fall into that pitfall of truth which is the unrelenting certainty that is the mark of fundamentalism.
E] But this is precisely a hallmark of our religion.
What was Moses’s signature attribute? Humility
והאיש משה עניו מאד מכל האדם אשר על פני האדמה
Moses was exceedingly humble, more humble than any other man on earth.
Reflect on what that means. What religion says of its founder that above all else, he was humble?
Certainly not Christianity that has its founder say “I am the living bread which came down from heaven” (John 6:51). “ “I am the way, the truth and the life -- no one comes to the father except through me.” (John 14:6)
Moses is a reluctant prophet, because modesty is in his soul, not certainty.
The Mishnah is unusual among law codes because it does not codify a final opinion. It asks, at one point, “why do we retain the opinion of the minority after it has been rejected?” And answers its own question -- “in order that another court may one day step up and find value in the sidelined opinion.” (M. Eduyot 1)
“Learn, therefore, the Talmud says “that no one should stubbornly insist on his way, for the pillars of the world themselves entertained difference of opinion.” For “both these and those represent the living words of God.” (Eruv. 13b)
The Talmud reports of Rava that he instructed his disciples that, after his death, should a ruling of his ever appear incorrect to them -- they should not rule accordingly, for a judge should never rule other than by his best judgment. (B.B. 131a)
Rava surely believed in the compelling truth of his ruling, but he recognized, nonetheless, that not everyone would agree. And he did not see his role as forcing compliance.
This Torah is a Torah a Torah of Humility, a Torah of moderation, a Torah of Tolerance, not a Torah of blinding, unremitting Truth -- for the secret of humility is that there is no one unremitting truth, even in matters of Torah. For any one judge of God’s will cannot but act according to his best judgment, but for any one opinion there is another, and “these and those are the living words of God” -- no one is infallibly true.
There is no room in such a Torah for the fires of fundamentalism.
I insist that that is the way we must approach our relations to others -- with humility toward our own judgments and gracious acceptance of those of others that are no less than we.
That underpins interfaith relations in which we can and should say that Christians and Muslims, Hindu and Buddhists are, each of them, people of faith who worship God as do we -- if, certainly, in different ways.
That must underpin our cultural tolerance of people different from ourselves, when they prove their fealty to that same basic human civility that, as we said, overrides even their truth.
F] This is not my thought alone. The Midrash finds a way to address this conundrum, (for it is that) -- this conundrum that would allow tolerance to trump God’s truth, for we never know with certainty what that truth might be. (B.R. 8:5)
Said Rabbi Simmon -- When God came to create the first human, the angels took sides. Some said: They should not be created. And others said they should be.
This is alluded to in the verse in Psalms (85:11) -- “Kindness and Truth had an encounter, Justice and Peace kissed.”
Kindness said: Let humans be created, for they will do many compassionate things.
Truth said: Let them not be created, for they lie.
Justice said: Let them be created, for they will seek fairness and justice.
Peace said: No indeed, for they will be forever bickering and warring.
So what did God do? He grabbed Truth and cast it to the ground.
For God so desired humankind, and so understood its needs, that He knew that Truth would have to yield for humans to exist. He knew that Truth would have to yield if we were to exercise our free will. And He knew that free will would have to exist for us to exercise the compassion and strive toward the justice that He so prized.
And in that moment, in the absence of truth, that is how human beings were created.
We need Kindness and Justice, Lord knows we need Peace, but we also need to teach a Torah of Tolerance, for Truth is not attainable in this world.
Is there, then, no such thing as Truth in heaven? Does God no longer wear his diadem of Truth?
After this world was created, the angels, continues the midrash, appealed to God to restore Truth. How can You continue without your signature and seal?
And so he restored Truth to its rightful place in heaven -- but it will not ever be known fully to us here on earth.
Moses was the most humble person on earth. He was God’s choice and is our model. For we must strive with intellectual humility, without access to truth. This assures our free will, our ability to sin, yes, but also our ability to repent. It demands of us a Torah of Tolerance -- and so may we proceed toward kindness, justice and peace.