The Search for Truth
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Contrary to a variety of other faith traditions and philosophies, Judaism has always contended that as commendable as it may be to seek truth and certainty, it is ultimately not the provenance of human beings. In fact, depending on how you look at it, the smashing of the tablets was neither the first nor the last time that truth was thrown to the ground. According to a fascinating midrash told of the creation of the world, as God was about to create the first human being, the angels, each one representing a particular attribute, began to argue whether humanity should be created at all. Mercy said yes, because humanity would perform acts of mercy. Truth said no, because humanity would undoubtedly perform acts of falsehood. Righteousness said yes, because humanity would perform acts of righteousness. On and on this went, until God took Truth and threw it to the ground – the message of the story being that in order for humanity to exist, truth itself had to be sacrificed. Contrary to Cardinal Ratzinger, this midrash, and others like it, has far more modest expectations when it comes to the acquisition of truth. Like the curve of an asymptote, Truth may be approached and approximated but never fully achieved. Our very existence is born out of, and contingent upon, a less than full grasp of the Truth.
All of which leaves us in a bit of a pickle. Because if the only thing we know for sure is that we don’t know everything, then how exactly are we supposed to assert a moral code? How do we distinguish between right and wrong and hold ourselves and others morally accountable?
Let me raise a small, but local example. Last week I was in dialogue with some teenagers in our community who were telling me about what goes on in some competitive high schools. They told me about the abuse of Ritalin and other prescription medications, prescriptions meant for ADHD or other disorders, but taken by some teens, even with parental knowledge, for additional focus and edge. And as eye-popping and depressing as it was for me to hear these stories, it was fascinating to listen to the teens argue about where, if anywhere, the line is between right and wrong. Why is this different from drinking several cups of coffee to stay awake? And if it is OK to drink coffee for caffeine, then what about caffeine pills to stay awake? And by the way, who is to say who does and doesn’t genuinely deserve medication? I sat there listening to them debate among themselves, trying to put moral order to their universe, struggling to parse out a moral code in a world where the road to relativism is so readily available to all. While it is easy to pick on teenagers to make the point, I imagine that for the adults in this room, these questions occur with equal if not greater frequency. If you have ever taken a shortcut, ever chosen a lesser evil for a greater good, ever forwarded an email to another without the knowledge of the original sender, ever told a policeman that you were just going with the flow of traffic, doing what everyone else does – then you, my friend, like those teens, are living on that slippery slope, figuring out a way to manage the gray area, just like the rest of us.
So what’s the answer? I have no idea. But as the tradition teaches, sh’elat haham – hatzi teshuvah. Sometimes a wise question is half the answer. If every one of us allowed for the possibility that none of us are in possession of the whole truth, there is no doubt in my mind that we would all get along better. It is not just a matter of “people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones,” though that is a big part of it. It means that we allow ourselves to function in this world without demanding that for you to be right, someone else needs to be wrong. As Niels Bohr famously stated, “The opposite of a correct statement is a false statement. But the opposite of a profound truth may be another profound truth.” Be it the debates of Hillel and Shammai, or those in our own day, we would all do well to remember that it when it comes to assertions of truth, it is the presence of humility, not certainty, that serves to bolster our claims.
As we steer between the Scylla of relativism and Charybdis of absolutism – perhaps the most important muscle group of all is what is called in Hebrew zehirut, vigilance or watchfulness. Each and every one of us must, according to Rabbi Moshe Hayyim Luzatto, be watchful of our conduct, scrutinize our actions and habits, be ever-vigilant as to whether we are doing right or wrong. (Mesillat Yesharim, Chp 2) Even with the best of intentions, pride, ego, inertia and hubris blind us from seeing and doing what is right. Moral vigilance is a lifetime project and it doesn’t matter if your garb is clerical or laic. Traps and temptation lie in wait for us all. Which is exactly why, if we live our lives always aspiring for truth, but ever aware that it is not ours to claim fully, in other words, reflectively, with caution and watchfulness, we may just be lucky enough to avoid the pitfalls that come with being human.
Some two hundred years before Ratzinger, another German writer, Gotthold Lessing, counseled, “It is not the truth which someone possesses or believes he possesses, but the honest effort he has made to get at that truth [which] constitutes a human being’s worth.” Indeed, in a refrain later repeated by Solomon Schechter, Lessing pondered aloud, “If God held fast in his right hand the whole of truth and in his left hand the ever-active quest for truth, albeit with the proviso that I should constantly and eternally err, and said to me: ‘Choose!’ I would humbly fall upon his left hand and say: ‘Father, give! For pure truth is for you alone!’”
Not Moses, not any of us, is ever offered a full view of what we seek. At best it is through the cleft of the rock that we see this world in which we live. Nevertheless, with caution and care, we must step forward slowly on our path, each one of us aspiring towards truth, ever seeking to do what is right and good in the eye of the Lord.