Erev Rosh HaShanah 5779
Rabbi Yoni Regev
Anyone who knows me well, knows that I have an unhealthy obsession with words; they have fascinated me for as long as I can remember. And for as long as I can remember, this has truly been a mixed blessing in my life. Knowing impressive-sounding words like alacrity or prestidigitation came in handy when I took the SATs, but using them in a conversation results in blank stares more often than nods of understanding and comprehension. Worse still were all the times I adamantly used a particular word and later found out I had mispronounced it or misused it altogether. But I persevered in the belief that my choice of words mattered, because the right words would convey the meaning of my thoughts in the clearest, and most succinct way.
Some other time we might explore the psychological underpinnings of that train of thought, but right now, I’d like to share the critical flaw that I discovered in this pursuit (and no, it was not the blank stares or the eye rolling from my friends, classmates, colleagues, and spouse). Rather, it was this: it turns out that words are very unreliable creations that can change and morph over time; they can vary in meaning depending on their context and can even go so far as to mean the opposite as they did before. A ‘sick burn’ is actually a good thing that has nothing to do with your health, and a topic of conversation might be ‘heavy’ even though it pertains to our weightless atmosphere. Similarly, the number of people who walk around while ‘literally boiling’ or ‘literally freezing’ is medically astonishing. Words can pop into our vernacular in a flash, and they can separate us by race and by class; by geography and ethnicity.
Even still, I held out hope that some words remained beyond reproach; incorruptible. Surely some words would remain true to thine own selves. And then came comedians like George Carlin and Stephen Colbert and ruined even that. I vividly remember the time, 13 years ago, when a lawyer named Harriet Myers was nominated for a vacant seat on the Supreme Court. Reacting to the divergent and polarized news coverage surrounding that nomination, the comedian Colbert coined the term "truthiness" in a signature segment called “the word.” He described truthiness as truth that "comes from the gut" and not from facts. He went on to explain that “Truthiness is, 'What I say is right, and [nothing] anyone else says could possibly be true.' It's not only that I feel it to be true, but that I feel it to be true. There's not only an emotional quality, but there's a selfish quality,” he incisively joked. Acting as a fake news anchor on a satire tv show, Colbert ended that iconic segment saying with a straight face, “Truthiness is, anyone can read the news to you, but I promise to feel the news at you.”
There remains a dispute as to whether Colbert actually invented the term, but he certainly captured the spirit of the moment and brought it sufficiently into the zeitgeist that Merriam-Webster's crowned “Truthiness” the "Word of The Year” a few months later.
Now, 13 years and a lifetime have passed, and a former federal prosecutor and elected official who currently works as a private lawyer for the President of the United States, appeared on a real news program and stated unironically that “Truth isn’t Truth,” because testimony under oath is only “somebody’s version of the truth,” and so between two conflicting accounts, the truth is somehow entirely unknowable.
I am not a lawyer, but this sounded like an unusual legal theory; especially out of the mouth of a former US Attorney. The absurdity of that statement was evident in the moment, as the news anchor incredulously repeated back those words, asking, “Truth isn’t truth? Do you realize what you are saying?”
As a citizen and engaged observer, I was incensed by the casual degradation of our public discourse and social norms. But as a rabbi, I was grateful that the matter was stated in such stark terms. After all, High Holy Day sermons about truth don’t just write themselves.
As I watched that instantly infamous interview replayed online, I was struck by the indignation and sense of moral outrage that I felt when I heard those words. That offhandedly succinct statement seemed to distill a worrying trend that has been undermining our trust in the institutions of our democracy - not least of which is the freedom of an independent press. Of course, truth is truth! What else could it be?
At first glance, our tradition seems clear and firm on this matter. Pirkei Avot, our collection of ethical teachings and aphorisms, famously states in the name of R. Shimon the Righteous, a teaching that we know so well, that the whole world stands on three things – on Torah, on Avodah (or worship), and on G’milut Chasadim (or acts of loving kindness). However, in that same chapter, another famous Shimon – Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel, offered a different approach, saying, Al sh’loshah d’varim haolam omeid - the world stands rather on these three things: al haDin, al haEmet, v’al haShalom – al haDin (on judgement or justice), al haEmet (on truth), v’al haShalom (and on peace). The Israeli scholar Avigdor Shinan emphasizes in his commentary on this teaching, “when it speaks of truth, it means the pursuit of truth and of speaking only the truth.” Shinan goes on to quote from the Jerusalem Talmud (Taanit 4b), that asserts the importance of this teaching, saying, “these three are actually one: when justice is done, the truth is served, and peace is made.”
However, like most everything else in Judaism, our tradition offers more than one perspective on any matter, and so I found more complexity and nuance the more I considerd and studied the issue. Indeed, any close reader of the Torah has come across instances where, to put it kindly, the text is not wholly consistent with itself. One need not read past the first and second chapters of the Book of Genesis to discover a textual phenomenon known as ‘doublets’ where stories and laws are repeated with significant change. In Genesis one and two, we encounter radically different and diverging narratives of the story and order of creation itself.
Even something so deceptively simple as the Ten Commandments does not remain consistent between its first statement in the Book of Exodus (chapter 20), and its restatement by Moses in the Book of Deuteronomy (chapter 5).
What are we to make of examples of such significant and obvious variance in the core text of our tradition. How are we to understand what the law of the Torah demands, when we repeatedly read in Genesis about the altars and sacrifices that our ancestors made to God wherever they happened to be, and reconcile that with the sharp exhortation of Deuteronomy that forbids worship and sacrifice anywhere other than the Temple where The Eternal chooses to reside by name?
This year we tragically lost the scholar and president of the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion who ordained me a rabbi. Dr. Aaron Panken was a visionary and creative thinker, a mentor, and a friend; and his struggle with this challenge has stayed with me. He wrote:
“To assess whether the Torah is true, we first must confront the thorny problem of defining the word “truth” itself. Spelled with a capital “T,” “Truth” meant there was one, singular, irrefutable truth that could never be changed or adapted despite whatever history might bring to bear. Lower case “truth,” on the other hand, represented truths that were malleable, transformed or reformed by time, location and experience, seen differently by those with varying outlooks.”
So was the Torah True or was it true?
Rabbi Panken ultimately concluded that “the “truth” of Torah remains valid only as long as the Jewish understandings built upon it receives constant and thoughtful adjustment over time and space. He taught us that it is not sufficient to see Torah as static, limited and completed—as capital “T” True—for such Truth cannot always make the jump to new generations, and a True Torah must ultimately become outdated and irrelevant as ideas change and society advances. Rather, the beauty of a lower case “true” Torah is in its reinterpretation and growth in every new time and place, based on prior Truths, yet continuous and ongoing in its pathbreaking brilliance and innovation. It is only through this careful balance that we ensure that the Torah is, was and will always be true.”
Considering how our tradition points to such a nuanced conception of truth, I wondered if my indignation at the apparent degradation of Truth in our public square was perhaps misplaced or overblown. Yet, I realized that my concern was not theological or philosophical, but rather, moral and ideological; and it has to do with the fundamental truths we hold to be self-evident – the core truths about who we are as a nation and what we believe as individuals.
It is true and self-evident that we are a nation of immigrants – because with few exceptions, every one of us can trace our roots to someplace else;
It is core to our identity that every person in our nation should share the same right for self-definition and determination; for equal opportunities and equal protections under the law.
In this age of progress, I believed it to be self-evident that the stains of our historical racism and inequality were in our past, and we were collectively engaged in the process of building a better future for all of our children. Yet I plainly recognize that my perspective on these issues is itself an expression and indictment of the rare privileges and opportunities I’ve enjoyed as a reasonably affluent straight white male in this society and in this world.
The story of my family’s immigration to this country early in the last century is not unique. We are indeed a nation of immigrants, but in our history, each successive wave of immigration has been seen or portrayed as a threat to those who had already established themselves. From the earliest days of this nation we have tended to ascribe virtue to our own ancestors’ immigration narratives, but too easily cast aspersions on the motivation and abilities of the new immigrants we saw coming to our shores.
Although Jewish cultural acceptance has been remarkably successful in this country, the past few years have taught us and reminded us again that ethnic and racial animosity in this country, and indeed around the world, have long simmered quietly just beneath the surface, waiting to bubble up. The rhetoric around the last presidential campaign and the inflammatory moral equivocation of the President in the face of Nazi and white supremacist riots and violence like those in Charlottesville last year, have provided the necessary permission structure for an unprecedented spike in hate speech, anti-Semitism, and anti-minority sentiments across the country. Our children are experiencing this first-hand in their schools, and we have witnessed it in the streets. This crisis did not materialize out of thin air just two years ago, but now is the time when we must demand moral clarity from our leaders and leave no room for moral equivocation.
In our lifetimes, we have witnessed positive cultural transformations take place in ways that might have seemed unthinkable to generations before us. The long overdue reckoning of the #MeToo movement, marriage equality, and the election of the first African American president come to mind first; but these changes, which most have called necessary progress, have sparked an equal and opposite cultural backlash from those who wish to roll back the clock or restore some antiquated notion of the status quo.
You may detect a slight ideological bend in my words, but please know that I’m not trying to make a political statement here. I honestly don’t think this has anything to do with politics so much as morality, and I certainly don’t lay a claim to knowing a greater or higher truth than anybody else. I only know a what has kept me up countless nights and has darkened countless days this past year. It is this: the actions of our government are done on our behalf and in our names; yet time and again they defy the core of our beliefs and the teachings of our heritage.
How can we possibly aspire to be the Land of the Free while agents of our government seize, detain, and deport asylum-seekers who are drawn to the promise of our land as they flee hardships and oppression we cannot imagine or endure.
How can we permit the forcible and indefinite separation of families by force, when our Torah cries out and admonishes us repeatedly to treat the strangers in our land kindly because we know the hardship of being the strangers. How can we close our eyes at night knowing that some children may never be reunited with their parents due to poor planning, and heartless policies enacted by our own government.
As we gather here on Rosh HaShanah we acknowledge that this is a time of reckoning. It is a time for personal reckoning for our actions and our inactions; a close examination of our souls. And it is a time for communal reckoning of our values and priorities. This year, we face a national reckoning too; a reckoning of what we believe to be true in our character as a people.
This year let us remember – Al sh’loshah d’varim haolam omeid, al haDin, al haEmet, v’al haShalom - The world stands on three things – on fair judgement and justice, on truth, and on peace. These three are indeed one - when justice is done, the truth is served, and peace is made.
Our tradition shows us that truth matters, but it does not remain static or unchanging. The truth that we seek is still a truth in the making. Some truths are better be expressed as aspirations and promises that haven’t yet come to fruition. Let us work together to fulfil that promise and bring our truth to life.
May this be God’s Will.