RABBI JONATHAN BLAKE
MAY 31, 2017
Oxford Dictionaries’ Word for the Year for 2016 is “Post-Truth.”
Here’s the official entry:
Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.
‘in this era of post-truth politics, it’s easy to cherry-pick data and come to whatever conclusion you desire’
‘some commentators have observed that we are living in a post-truth age’
We are indeed living in a post-truth age—an age of fake news, an age that doubts science, disparages intellectualism, and demeans inquiry; an age that would have us consider unfounded opinions acceptable substitutes for observable facts. Welcome to the post-truth age.
This week, one of my least favorite landmarks of the post-truth age celebrated its tenth anniversary. The Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky, which is a half hour from where I attended rabbinical school at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio, depicts the coexistence of humans and dinosaurs, portrays the Earth as approximately 6,000 years old, and disputes the theory of evolution. It has welcomed over 2.5 million visitors since its opening.
Or consider climate change in the post-truth age. In 1990, a year after I was confirmed, the first President Bush said, “We all know that human activities are changing the atmosphere in unexpected and in unprecedented ways…. [T]he United States will continue its efforts to improve our understanding of climate change—to seek hard data, accurate models, and new ways to improve the science—and determine how best to meet these tremendous challenges. Where politics and opinion have outpaced the science, we are accelerating our support of the technology to bridge that gap….”
George H. W. Bush did not waver in his commitment to the science, to policy informed by facts. Public opinion should follow the data, he argued, and not the other way around. Over the past 30 years, the scientific community has also not wavered: the emission of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases by industrialized nations is making the planet hotter, more precipitously than at any time in human history, and that the consequences—rising seawater levels, violent weather, destruction of already endangered natural habitats for plants and animals of all kinds—are real, imminent, and serious. For decades, close to 100% of the scientific community has stood by these findings. What has changed over the last 30 years are the tactics of opposition: most sinister among them, the enlisting of climate change deniers—most of them economically and politically motivated—to oppose scientific facts with dubious counterpoints.
The media then compound the problem by presenting both “sides” side-by-side, equal partners in a “debate”—as if climate change is, in fact, a debate, rather than established fact. The results of this campaign of disinformation are already disastrous and could become worse. Consider that the term “climate change” has been removed from the White House website and you begin to get an idea of how influential the denial movement has become. In a world where opinion masquerades as truth, everyone loses.
Of course, “[T]he story of the conflict between truth and politics is an old and complicated one,” as the brilliant Jewish political theorist Hannah Arendt wrote fifty years ago. A refugee from Nazi terror, Arendt understood that “[t]he chances of factual truth’s surviving the onslaught of power are very slim indeed; it is always in danger of being maneuvered out of the world not only for a time, but, potentially, forever.” Up against the power of a regime hostile to truth, facts become more than mere inconveniences—they become dangerous, and so the regime suppresses them, denies them, alters them, destroys them. “Even in Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia it was more dangerous to talk about concentration and extermination camps, whose existence was no secret,” than to hold or even speak anti-authoritarian opinions about anti-Semitism, racism, and Communism. The most dangerous weapon of the regime was factual truth, and those in power knew it.
At the height of the Vietnam War, in 1971, John Lennon wrote “Gimme Some Truth”:
I’m sick to death of hearing things from
Uptight shortsighted narrow minded hypocritics
All I want is the truth, just give me some truth
I’ve had enough of reading things
By neurotic psychotic pigheaded politicians
All I want is the truth, just give me some truth
Fortunately, you, Confirmation Class of 5777, have inherited a Jewish tradition that loves, reveres, relentlessly pursues truth—a truth that promotes no political party, that privileges no personal preference. Truth eternal, Truth with a capital “T.”
Today you read the passage from the Book of Exodus depicting the giving of the Law at Sinai. Of this moment, the Biblical book of Nehemiah says:
וְעַל הַר סִינַי יָרַדְתָּ וְדַבֵּר עִמָּהֶם מִשָּׁמָיִם וַתִּתֵּן לָהֶם מִשְׁפָּטִים יְשָׁרִים וְתוֹרוֹת אֱמֶת חֻקִּים וּמִצְוֹת טוֹבִים.
“You came down on Mount Sinai and spoke to them from heaven; You gave them proper rules and teachings of truth, good laws and commandments.”
And then you blessed: Baruch ata Adonai, Eloheinu Melech Ha-Olam, asher natan lanu Torat Emet, v’chayei olam nata b’tocheinu. Baruch ata Adonai, notein ha-Torah.
“Blessed are You, Eternal our God, sovereign of all worlds, who has given us a Torah of Truth, implanting within us eternal life. Blessed are You, Adonai, Giver of the Torah.”
A Torah of Truth, Torat Emet in Hebrew, where Emet is the Hebrew word for Truth. It’s a word that comes up a lot in the Jewish tradition. In Yiddish, we say something is “the real deal” by calling it “Emes,” the same word. Elsewhere in the Torah, “Emet” or Truth is one of God’s signature attributes—a quality that we see in the divine and that, as human beings made in the divine image, we aspire to attain.
The Talmud teaches Chotmo Shel Ha-Kadosh Baruch Hu Emet, “The Seal of the Holy One is Truth,” because the word Emet, written with the three letters Alef, Mem, and Tav comprises the first, middle, and last letters of the Alef-Bet. It implies that Truth, more than any other quality, encompasses and encapsulates God’s nature. We find God’s Presence not in the miraculous or supernatural, but wherever truth resides. To perceive the laws of Nature that govern the cosmos; to apprehend the wondrous fact of our existence; to revere the beauty and harmony of the universe—to know these is to know what Einstein called “the mind of God.”
Maimonides, the great 12th Century Rabbi, taught us to accept Truth from whatever source we find it. He was not only a brilliant religious thinker and prolific author; he also was a medical doctor, scientist, and philosopher.
He taught that if the factual truth we learn from science, or observe from Nature, does not comport with what we may have learned from our religious tradition—even from the very words of the Torah itself—then our understanding of Torah is faulty and must be modified to fit the facts, and not the other way around.
For example, Maimonides sought to understand the fantastic miracles recorded in the Bible in light of what he understood about the laws of nature. He rejected the idea that the Bible should (or could) be read “literally,” but rather insisted that our sacred books speak in the symbolic language of metaphor and allegory. He said: “Truth does not become more true by virtue of the fact that the entire world agrees with it, nor less so even if the whole world disagrees with it.”
Maimonides illuminates the path for us. The truth is not always easy or comfortable. Seeking truth and speaking truth will not always make you popular. The Prophets of the Hebrew Bible, whose words the Rabbis also called “Emet,” were the ultimate truth tellers. They warned a wayward people of a God who cared little for ritual sacrifices but endlessly for morality and righteous behavior, a God who favored not the powerful or the rich, but the poor and downtrodden, the vulnerable and the victim. For seeking and speaking truth, the Prophets often ended up ostracized and persecuted.
Confirmation Class of 5777, as you know, you need only read the headlines to know that you’re living in a post-truth age. I wish I could reassure you that you can find refuge in your books, in the intellectually serious curriculum and climate of high school and, soon enough, college—and to an extent you can and I hope you will. And yet even the college campus environment has been beset of late by a particularly noxious form of untruth that we, as Jews, must confront head-on.
At American colleges from Vassar to UCLA, a movement called BDS, which stands for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions, aims to demonize and delegitimize Israel and to tarnish Zionism—which means our belief in the right of the Jewish people to self-determination in our national homeland—with charges of “racism” and “apartheid.”
This is happening in our backyard. In recent years anti-Israel activists at NYU issued fake “eviction notices” to students living in predominantly Jewish dormitories. This Spring, students at Columbia University staged mock “checkpoints” where students pretending to be Israeli soldiers harassed other students on their way to class or just hanging out on the lawn. (On the positive side, last month, the Columbia University Student Council overwhelmingly rejected a BDS resolution.)
Even still, such encouraging outcomes are far from guaranteed. Rather than sponsor intellectually rigorous conversation about the complexities of this critical juncture in Israel’s history—fifty years since the triumph of the Six-Day War, and fifty years of its military occupation of the West Bank—college campuses have become hotbeds of ill-informed activism, allergic to inconvenient facts.
Given this climate on campus, speaking your truth as a Jew and a supporter of the Jewish State—with all its complexities, all its challenges, and, yes, all of its shortcomings—takes courage. Even on campuses like Oberlin or Michigan, with relatively large Jewish populations, approaching 30% of the student body, some Jewish students report feeling intimidated and many are simply choosing to keep the truth of their Judaism under wraps, as if it were a mark of shame rather than a badge of honor.
Confirmation Class of 5777, as you near your high school horizon, remember well what George Orwell once wrote: “During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.”
In truth, we all have high confidence from watching you lead our worship and speak your truth today. Through your public prayers and personal statements, you give everyone in this congregation hope: not only that the Jewish tradition will thrive through you, but also that our shared commitment to seeking and speaking the truth will accompany you wherever you go.
Your world will soon become bigger, more complex, much more diverse. Never let your commitment to seeking and speaking your truth preclude you from listening to the truths of others. Remember that while all scientific facts are, in fact, true, it does not, conversely, hold that all truths are scientific facts. God’s world is big enough and the realm of human experience broad enough to accommodate multiple perspectives—different spiritual paths; different narratives informed by different ethnic and national histories; different conclusions about the world and our place in it; and yes, different political opinions and party affiliations—and we are, in fact, much the better for such diversity.
I hope that, as you continue to grow and go places, each of you will find the bravery it will take not only to share your truth with others whose experience differs from yours, but also to listen to theirs, to learn from the truths of others, to internalize some of the wisdom of traditions not your own. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel counseled: “No religion is an island.” God, whose seal is Truth with a capital “T,” who encompasses all, is so much bigger than any one human perspective, any one religious tradition. No one person, no one ideology, no one faith, claims a monopoly on Truth.
Nehemiah may have hinted at just this in describing the experience at Mount Sinai as the giving of “תוֹרוֹת אֱמֶת” — not Torat Emet, a Torah of Truth, singular, but Torot Emet, literally, TORAHS of Truth, plural. As Rabbi Larry Kushner put it: “Each person has a Torah, unique to that person, his or her innermost teaching.”
Confirmation Class of 5777: Keep seeking, keep speaking, and most of all, keep discovering your Torah, each one of you refining the Truth of your innermost teaching. Keep learning the Torah of others, the way you have learned the innermost Torah of your classmates this year, and have, as a result, become One.
And if, from time to time, the Truth seems to elude you, and you seem to lose your way, remember the words you chanted today, and find your way back: …asher natan lanu Torat Emet, v’chayei olam nata b’tocheinu. That within each of us God has implanted a kind of eternal life, a Torah of truth whose wisdom will not die with you but rather endures from generation to generation.