The topic of truth has been in the news lately; this past week because of Michael Cohen, but it’s been on peoples’ minds quite a bit over the past couple of years.
It’s also been on my mind because this week I went to a meeting of the local Ministerial Association, where a truth that is very different from mine was offered.
The group is comprised of clergy and lay leaders from some 70 religious institutions. Most of its members are from various Christian sects. There are several Jewish members – in fact, there are three Jews on the board – but no one from other religions; no Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, or Buddhists.
And my Christian colleagues often forget that it is not an entirely Christian group. Many pray in a manner that excludes anyone who doesn’t believe in Jesus. This week was especially difficult, as speaker after speaker exhorted the group to remember that they are followers of Christ and must behave as such.
It was so overt that the Reverend Henry Porter, who was sitting next to Jessi Sheslow from Federation, leaned over and asked her if she was OK. He said the same to me after the meeting.
As we spoke and I conveyed my dismay, he told me that he hopes that by continuing to show up and speak up, Jessi and I and the other Jews can serve as reminders that we are a multi-cultural society, with people of many different faiths living side-by-side.
The truth is that their truth is different from mine. My truth says that Jesus was a man, an itinerant rabbi. My truth says that God has many names, none of which can perfectly describe the Deity. And my truth says that it is not OK to pray in such a way as to exclude others from being able to pray with you, or even say Amen.
The thing about truth is that it’s fluid. There’s capital T truth, the truths we hold to be self-evident, and lower-case t truths, the ones we believe, perhaps without being able to back them up.
And there is truth that does not rely on facts. Like many others, I believe that the Torah is not a factual document, that indeed, it was never meant to be taken as such. And it tells us this at the very beginning: The creation story in chapter two directly contradicts the creation story in chapter one.
The lesson for us? I believe it is teaches that the Torah isn’t meant to convey facts. It comes to give us moral and spiritual guidelines, direction on how to live a meaningful life, how to be a good person, how to be a good member of a community.
In his book Sacred Fragments, my teacher Rabbi Neil Gillman told the story from the Talmud about Moses being transported by God to the future, where he sits in the back of Rabbi Akiva’s classroom, and does not understand a word of what’s being taught. At one point Akiva’s students ask, “Rabbi, how did you reach that conclusion?” and he answers: “Moses received this law at Mount Sinai and passed it on.”
Rabbi Gillman wrote: “In one sense, it is the Torah from Sinai; we copy it painstakingly onto a scroll and read meticulously from it in the synagogue. But in another sense, it is also an eternally new text, read anew by every generation as Jews seek to uncover another of its infinite layers of meaning.”
As Achad Ha’am said, “Every generation has its own needs and its own truths.”
Today, people of all ages are caught in a tangle of truths and untruths. We are the generations of photoshopping, of fake videos of famous people that you would swear are real but aren’t, and very public “I-said-you-said” disagreements between powerful people. We are the generations of cell-phone and body-cam videos, which, when shot from different angles, sometimes tell different stories about the same incidents.
It is virtually impossible to discern what is true and what is false.
This does not stop us from wanting to get to the truth of the matter, whatever the matter may be. But I wonder sometimes, why we want to know the truth.
Is it to prove someone else wrong? To bolster our own beliefs? Very few of us are journalists or judges, each of whom claims objectivity and simply want to get to the root of the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
As someone who has worked as a journalist, I can tell you that there is no such thing as an objective observer. Everyone has a point of view. Everyone is shaped by their upbringing, by their experiences, by their beliefs. A black man from the streets of Chicago will see an event very differently than a white man from the streets of New York. And a woman from either city will have yet another perspective.
In last week’s Torah portion we read about Moses asking to “know God’s ways.” Just a few verses earlier, the Torah says that “the Lord would speak to Moses face to face, as one man speaks to another.” Exodus 33:11
Clearly, Moses wasn’t asking to see God, but rather to know God, to know God’s Truth. God complied by proclaiming the famous 13 attributes that we chant on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement (see Exodus 34:6-7).
And where is Moses while God is declaiming these words? Standing in a cleft in the rock, watching as God’s Presence passes by. Looking, to use anthropomorphic language, at God’s back.
My friend Hazzan David Abramowitz, who stands well over six feet tall, says that he imagines Moses was looking over God’s shoulder, looking at the world from God’s perspective, seeing the Truth as God saw it.
I’m nearly a foot shorter than my friend. I wouldn’t have seen a thing; I’m not tall enough. My truth would have been quite different from Hazzan David’s, or Moses’ or God’s. But it would have been my truth.
There’s a Yiddish proverb that says, “Truth rests with God alone, and a little bit with me.”
May we be blessed to remember that we are granted only a little bit of truth. And truth, like God, has many different names.
This is the sermon that I gave over at Congregation Kol HaNeshama this Shabbat.