Friday, November 27th, 2020

From Where Shall Truth Be Found? by Gidon Rothstein

August 8, 2010 by  
Filed under Education, New Posts

On two recent occasions, I have had the similar and unsettling experience of noting the importance of finding the truth, only to have listeners speak of the impossibility, or at least great difficulty, of that task, on even basic issues.

And, incidentally, I do not mean complex or debated truths, I mean ones that should be seen as simple and obvious.  I have reviewed some of what I see as those simple truths in my posts on the Mission of Orthodoxy project, but here’s another one: I recently suggested that part of Orthodoxy is the belief in miracles as a possibility.  As an illustration, I argued that a person who was ill, even to the point that doctors despaired of doing anything more, nonetheless should believe in the possibility (not likelihood, and certainly not guarantee) of a miraculous recovery, and should pray to God with that possibility in mind.  A listener, highly educated Jewishly, was surprised at my claim, and appeared not to believe it.  I note that my view is, as far as I can tell, universal in traditional Jewish thought; while some thinkers see miracles as exceptions embedded by God within Nature (although usually hidden from our view) and others see it as God actively intervening in Nature, the idea that miracles can occur at any time is, I believe, well-accepted in traditional thought. And yet, even highly educated Jews have trouble recognizing this truth.

Two Scriptural Examples of the Challenge

Here is how I became aware of the conundrum: In one case, I was reviewing the haftarah for the second of the Three Weeks, the second chapter of Yirmiyahu.  In verse 8, Yirmiyahu complains on God’s behalf over the failures of that generation’s leadership. As Radak understands it, the priests of the time, serving properly and appropriately in the Beit haMikdash, nonetheless failed to protest the idol worship all around them.  The Torah scholars of the era studied as an academic endeavor and intellectual exercise, not as a guide to behavior.  The monarchs, whose role and expertise is shepherding the masses to better service of God, instead neglected God.

Yirmiyahu, I noted, is letting us know that the average Jew of the time would have had a hard time finding the truth. While Yirmiyahu and a few others were loudly declaring it, there was plenty of competition as well.  As I made this point, a young woman in the group raised her hand and asked, “So how are we supposed to know the truth?”

5/9, The Aftermath: The Second Example of the Failure to See Truth

I will offer some suggestions towards an answer, but let me tell the second story.  This past Tish’a B’Av night, Lincoln Square Synagogue hosted me after the evening Kinnot, to share some thoughts relevant to the day.  The hour being late and energy in short supply, I spoke briefly about chapters 42-44 of Yirmiyahu.

Following the Destruction, we are told, the people come to him and ask him for God’s Word on what they should do (Malbim, I should note, thinks they were insincere from the start; I presented it more in accord with the most apparent meaning of the text). The prophet commits to telling them what God says, and they, unbidden, add a promise to obey whatever command comes.

In what seems to me the weak link in their commitment, it takes ten days for Hashem to reply (I tried to imagine what those ten days would have been like in my short story 5/9, The Aftermath, in my book Cassandra Misreads the Book of Samuel).  Crucially, though, the reply would seem to be exactly what they wanted to hear— Hashem urges them to stay in the Land, promises that they have reached the end of their needed punishment, assures them this would be the beginning of a rebuilding process.

It may have been the wait that did it (and it may be that Hashem delayed precisely to test their faith), but they respond by calling Yirmiyahu a liar. Each time I think of that, I shudder—Yirmiyahu has spent forty years remonstrating with them, trying to convince them to change their ways, has predicted the tragedies they have already seen even as he was reviled, arrested, and tortured; now that it has all come true, they are still able to call him a liar?  In their telling, it is Baruch ben Neriah (who, we find out in Chapter 45, suffered in his own way by virtue of the people’s sinfulness) who has convinced Yirmiyahu to tell them to stay.

Incidentally, a comment of Ramban’s at the end of his commentary on Haazinu (Devarim 32;26) is relevant here.  He points out that even if Haazinu were only the words of an ordinary astrologer (or, in our days, a scientist), we would follow whatever he said, since the predictions have come true so fully. Here, too, we might have thought Yirmiyahu’s being right time and again would have made inroads in the people’s faith. Apparently not.

So they go to Egypt, and Yirmiyahu goes with them.  There, God tells him to remonstrate with them for their sun-worship.  Instead of regret, they answer him in kind, insisting not only on their intention to worship the sun, but claiming that it was their failures in proper sun-worship that had led to their troubles.  As I reviewed all this that night, I lamented the Jews’ ability to convince themselves the story of the Destruction should lead to a greater rejection of the prophet’s words, not a lesser one, grieved over the people’s stubborn blindness to the truth, so great that even calamity would not alert them to it.

Would We Notice Truth If It Stared Us in the Face?

To give it a contemporary element, I added that the Mishnah in Sanhedrin 97b says that if the Jewish people fail to repent as necessary to merit the Redemption, R. Yehoshua is of the view that God will bring a king whose decrees are as harsh as Haman’s, and the Jews will repent.  That comment, incidentally, is recorded by Rambam in Hilchot Teshuvah 7;5, although Rambam just says “and the Jewish people will in the future repent.”  If the Churban and exile did not do it—and, in our own times, if the Holocaust and its horrors did not do it—what kind of king was R. Yehoshua envisioning?

After I finished, an elderly couple was leaving, and I heard the wife ask the husband, “But the question is, how can we know the truth?”  A remarkable challenge: After thousands of years in possession of the Torah, with the additional comments of Hazal, of rishonim and acharonim, many of us are still honestly unsure as to where to find the truth of what God wants from us.  This is not the challenge of accepting the truth, which is what stops pagans, for example, from finding God—they deny that what we have is the truth.  Nor is it the challenge of living up to the truths we know, which is what we articulate in our ‘al het’s on Yom Kippur.  Here, I am grappling with the challenge of knowing the truth when we are looking for it.

I also don’t mean to suggest that if we look the right way, we will find a single truth.  Even with the right strategies, we have to expect to find differences of nuance, of emphasis, and of detail—the Judaism of Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel differed sharply, sometimes radically, as does that, in many important ways, of Jews from different parts of the world.  But those differences are all within the bounds of Elu va-elu, these and these are the words of the living God.  What we often lose sight of is how to differentiate those truths that fall within elu va-elu and those that lie without.  Herewith, therefore, four suggestions that are not the whole solution, but are a useful start:

1) Start with Tanach (Scripture).  As the word of God, Tanach makes a claim to truth that no other texts can or do.  The truths declared by Tanach, properly understood, are the truths that God has shared with us precisely so that we can know what truth is.  And, crucially, whatever we find in other authoritative sources, cannot, by definition, contradict what we find in Tanach; it may explain Tanach in ways we would not have realized on our own, but the proper understanding of Tanach must always be central to an accurate Jewish life.

2) In line with the realization that we can only understand Tanach correctly based on how tradition interpreted it, look to follow our leaders.  In our times, some communities of Jewry resist the idea of following leaders, but the assumption of Tanach and Hazal is that most of us are ill-equipped to find the truth for ourselves.  I have numerous times heard people of remarkably minimal education (at least compared to what full knowledge of Torah involves) expatiate at length on topics which I happened to know they were ill-equipped to address– halachic, hashkafic, and practical terms of how to best apply ideas of the Torah to this world.

Leadership is a talent, but also an occupation.  Someone who has spent his life in study and consideration of Torah is more likely to have insight and understanding into its nature and interests than someone who has spent that same time in some other profession, however noble.  That is not to say that study itself guarantees finding the wisdom to lead; we need to insure we follow leaders well-suited to the task, in Torah and its related fields.

Once we find those leaders, though, we need to approach them with the humility of knowing that which we do not know.  This, too, can be taken too far; some would insist on going to a leader (or rebbe) on every life matter, even those where the individual is fully competent to weigh in. But we can go to the other extreme as well, ignoring our Torah leaders completely, and not seeking their perspective on how to handle central questions of our time.

Part of the reason we do this, I think, has to do with a third rule of finding the truth:

3) If it’s too comfortable, it’s probably not the truth.  One of the reasons we have trouble following our leaders is that we often do not like what they have to say (and, in response, those leaders often learn to refrain from saying all that they think).  But with the possible exception of the most perfected among us, the truth will show us areas we need to change, areas of failure, and areas where we have not even begun to realize that which we are supposed to be doing.

Finding the truth must mean making room for the possibility that we have been blind, until now, to deeply significant aspects of what God wants from the world.  That kind of openness, of readiness to hear such distressing news, is not so easy to cultivate, but necessary to finding truth.

4) The truth has to be taken whole, not in pieces. As neviim complain, one flaw in the Jews of the first Beit haMikdash was their insistence on emphasizing sacrifices, to the detriment of other important parts of what God asked of them.  It is deceptively easy, and tempting, to focus on one or other part of what the Torah wants, and turn that into the whole.

But the truth, to be the truth, must be taken in all its complexity and all its parts.  To focus on one part of the truth of Tanach and/or Hazal, no matter how accurate that one part is, is to lose sight of other equally or more important pieces of that truth, and therefore to warp not only the neglected parts, but even those the person is engaging.

Following all of these ideas will not guarantee that we will find all of the truth; the Jews of Yirmiyahu’s time were not necessarily less intelligent, less committed, or less astute than we are.  But learning from their mistakes, recognizing the challenge, seeing that our task is eased by the voluminous Jewish literature that has developed since then, should help us at least come to understand the endeavor in which we are engaged and bring us closer to finding the truths Hashem has been broadcasting these past thousands of years.

After that, we can only move forward with the confidence and hope that Hashem helps those who seek Him, that if we return to the search with a whole heart, Hashem will insure that the truth will meet us more than halfway.

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