Next time you are in Israel – which I hope for so many reasons will be sooner than later for us all – be sure to catch an Israeli soccer game, or as they call it, “football.” And if the score is even at the end of the match, know that Israelis will not call it a tie, a draw, or a split; the word they will use is teyku. Like so many expressions in the modern Israeli lexicon, teyku traces its roots all the way back to the Talmud. But what makes teyku different is that it is not just a word that means “tie,” but an acronym – the four letters taf, yud, kuf, and vav represent the four Hebrew words in the sentence Tishbi y’taretz kushiot u-ba·ayot, the Tishbite will resolve difficulties and problems. In order to explain the acronym and the words, I need to take a step back.
The Talmud, as you may know, is the foundational text of the Jewish people, a compendium of rabbinic dialogue spanning centuries. And while the Talmud contains all sorts of literary genres, it is best known, rightly so, as an anthology of rabbinic debate. The record of hundreds of rabbis, over hundreds of years, arguing over just about every topic – philosophical, theological, legal, practical, and otherwise. More often than not, the evidence, reasoning, or stature of one sage takes precedence over that of his counterpart in an argument. However, in some instances – three-hundred and nineteen to be precise – the rabbis are faced with two equally balanced sides, an insoluble dispute, a debate to which the rabbis can only throw up their hands and declare: “Teyku!” This is a debate that will not be resolved until the end of times, when the Tishbite, that is, Eliyahu Hatishbi, Elijah the Tishbite, will reveal the answer. Teyku – a tie – the Tishbite will resolve difficulties and problems.
The question then becomes: Why Elijah? Why is the Tishbite the one to whom we kick the eschatological can of all our present-day debates? We meet Elijah in the biblical book of Kings. A passion-filled prophet, Elijah fought the good fight, the fight of monotheism opposing idolatry in the ninth-century northern kingdom of Israel, then ruled by the wicked Ahab and his Phoenician wife Jezebel. Unlike pretty much everyone, Elijah never dies, but is taken into the heavens in a whirlwind, thus explaining his mysterious and peripatetic presence at Passover seders, havdalah ceremonies, brissen, and other finely catered Jewish occasions. Elijah is not just the most ubiquitous of all Jewish mystical figures, but also the longest lasting – assigned to make his rounds until the very end of time when he will be the harbinger of the Messiah.
None of which, interesting as it all is, answers the question with which we began. What is the connection between Elijah and dispute resolution? Full disclosure: I wrote my doctoral thesis on a theologian, Rabbi Louis Jacobs, who wrote an entire book on the word Teyku. My dissertation on Jacobs was entitled, you guessed it, Teyku. So, while I could share with you Jacobs’s answer to my question, the answer I am about to share with you – for better or for worse, right or wrong – is entirely my own, an answer which will also, please God, connect to this week’s Torah reading.
Of all the biblical stories concerning Elijah, perhaps the most famous is the scene when he flees for his life from Ahab and Jezebel, journeying forty days and forty nights to take refuge in a cave on a mountainside. God’s voice calls him out from the cave to stand on the mountain, at which point a great and mighty wind arrives, followed by the crash of an earthquake, then the shattering of rocks, and finally a blast of fire. Elijah was the rarest of souls to experience God’s direct revelation. And yet, the text states, God was not in the wind, nor was God in the earthquake, nor for that matter was God in the fire. God’s revelation – as experienced by Elijah – was heard in the still small voice, the kol d’mamah dakah (1 Kings 19:1–13). It is not just that Elijah lived longer than others, nor that he had a revelation to which nobody else was party. Rather, Elijah represents the possibility of a different kind of truth, one that comes not by way of dazzling pyrotechnics or thunderous explosives, but just the opposite – a quiet, barely perceptible, altogether unassuming, still small voice. A truth titrated over time, whose power is found not in top-down heavenly assertions but rather, like the butterfly that emerges from its cramped chrysalis, gently, humbly, and over time. Truth, as represented by Elijah, is neither singular nor sudden. It is modest, humble, and steady, able to hold its ground, even as the world shakes around it.
And what does this have to do with this week’s Torah reading? Put simply: the mountain. The mountain upon which Elijah stands is Horeb. Horeb, otherwise known as Mount Sinai, is the mountain of God about which we read three times in the Bible. The first time is when Moses stood before the burning bush at the beginning of the book of Exodus. The third time is as I just described, when Elijah hears the still small voice. The second, and perhaps most famous, time is this morning, when the children of Israel stand at the base of the mountain to receive the Torah. This is the moment of divine revelation, when God’s will is shared and God’s truth is revealed. Our parashah describes the thunder, the lightening, the violent trembling as God’s presence descends upon the mountain, a top-down model of truth giving if there ever was one. A model which – and this is the important part – is diametrically opposed to the model of Elijah on Horeb, the still small voice of Horeb. In one paradigm, truth is revealed in a manner as thunderous as it is singular. In the other, truth is revealed quietly, gently, and humbly. Both are Horeb, both are models sanctioned by the tradition, both are paradigms of how truth is to be found, asserted, held, and maintained.
This morning, I want to talk to you about epistemic humility. I want to do so, first of all, because Rabbi Witkovsky promised me a dollar for every time I used the phrase epistemic humility from the pulpit. (That’s two dollars so far). The word “epistemic” essentially means anything dealing with knowledge; epistemic humility refers to the virtue of being humble in how we assert our knowledge. Epistemic humility is neither declaring ignorance nor ceding truth to another. Epistemic humility is not waving the white flag to relativism, surrendering that all truth is somehow shaped by context so we can never know anything. Epistemic humility is merely the virtue of knowing that one’s claim on truth must always be made with modesty, given that human knowledge is necessarily incomplete. We never know the fullness of anything, so when we do assert something, there should always be something tentative about our proclamations of certainty. Epistemic humility is the still small voice that Elijah heard, the counterbalance to this morning’s Torah reading. The belief that our assertions of truth may be best served by coexisting with the truths of another, even if those assertions contradict our own. Epistemic humility is a demeanor, a posture that announces to the world that my right to be right does not preclude your right to be right as well. And you know what? None of us will fully know who is truly right until the end of days, when the Tishbite resolves our outstanding debates.
It might strike some of you as odd and unexpected to come to synagogue and hear a rabbi preach the importance of staying humble in making truth claims. This is, after all, a house of God, the place where many go to find certainty in uncertain times, to hear fundamental truths as mediated by scripture, prayer, and thundering sermons. In my mind, however, the point of religion, or at least good religion, is just the opposite: to teach us that as much as we may think we know, there is far more in this world that we do not know. That religious integrity is not so much the assertion that we are in possession of truth, which ultimately belongs to God and God alone, but rather the earnest search for truth, the never-ending aspiration to know the divine will, which, asymptotically, will always exist just beyond our reach. As a teacher of mine once taught, the world “religion” has the root l-i-g, the same as in “ligament,” that which connects two things. In the case of religion, the connection is between humanity and the mysteries that remain ever elusive. To be religious is not to walk this earth with certainty. To be religious is to walk this earth filled with wonder, awe, and appreciation for that which we don’t know and may never know, but to remain, nevertheless, committed to seeking to know.
And let me tell you, our world is in desperate need of more, not fewer, religious people. Our age does not lack for societal ills, ills exacerbated by a toxic culture of hyperpolarized division. Pick the issue – race, politics, environment, gender, immigration, masks, vaccinations, or any other. The point is not any one issue; rather, the point is the pugilistic manner with which we seem to approach every issue. As individuals, as a nation, as citizens of the world, we have no epistemic humility; we have lost the ability to assert our own views with a demeanor that allows for the possibility that our knowledge is incomplete, evolving and functioning in the company of views which differ from our own.
The signs of this malady of our age are evident for all to see. On one side of the political spectrum, uncomfortable truths are dismissed outright as fake and false. Better to reject that which we don’t want to hear by fabricating an alternate reality that scorns science and disdains facts, a post-truth world bludgeoned by that age old tactic historically attributed to Goebbels: “If you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes truth.” Why enter the arena to debate ideas? Just shout down the other side with big lies and little lies, through television, through social media, through any megaphone that can drown out the possibility of opposing views.
But the threat comes from the other side, too. As Ilana Redstone recently outlined in her latest piece in Tablet, our world is increasingly inhospitable to engaging worldviews different from our own. An uneasy uniformity of thought has become the norm in progressive circles, most sadly and most dangerously on the university campuses that are meant to be bastions for the active exchange of ideas. Speakers are disinvited, and students are self-censoring, disinclined to voice unpopular opinions for fear of being shouted down, cancelled, and in some cases, subjected to the threat of physical violence. The tactics here are different than on the other side, but the effects are the same: a narrowing of acceptable discourse, an ideologically homogeneous echo chamber, policed by the most recent orthodoxies of woke politics, which, though dressed in the cloth of progressive thought, in truth represent the most illiberal tendencies of all.
With threats coming from all quarters, I do believe it is a time of both obligation and opportunity for the religious community to remind the world of the importance of epistemic humility. We need to remind people that truth is elusive, that admission of doubt is a sign of virtue, not weakness, and that listening, not speaking, is our greatest tool of expression. What a powerful moment it is in our Torah reading when Moses, the greatest of all our prophets, is visited by his father-in-law Jethro who suggests a different leadership model, and Moses listens to his father-in-law, course corrects, and moves on. We need to remind ourselves of all the times in our life when we thought we knew it all, and now we know we didn’t, and ask if there any reason not to believe that someday in the not-too-distant future we will look back at the beliefs we hold today the same way. We need to remind ourselves and the world that the force of our convictions is strengthened, not weakened, by engagement with views different than our own. Is not the best test of truth, as Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote: “ . . . the power of thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market,” an outcome only possible if we build a society willing to house opposing views? In the classic rabbinic debates between Hillel and Shammai, the house of Hillel is remembered not just for what he said, but how he said it – always stating the opposing view before his own. The rabbis understood themselves not as embodiments of truth but as instruments towards approximating the divine will, their arguments opportunities to arrive closer to truth. The rabbis understood the active and sometimes heated exchange of ideas not as a source of division, but just the opposite, as an opportunity to create a shared conversation and a vision for the world as it ought to be. This is what it means to be part of a community, be it a synagogue, a nation, or a family: to be able to sit together with people with whom we differ, whose truth may be other than our own, but whose humanity and whose right to truth is no different than our own. This is what it means to be religious, to have epistemic humility, to hear the still small voice of Elijah.
The wounded divisions of our age bleed openly. Fellow citizens unable to countenance politics different than their own; students whose minds are closed to engaging with uncomfortable ideas; brothers and sisters, members of the same family, unwilling to imagine a side of the story different than the one they have told themselves all these years. We do not need to give up our truths in order hear others. We just need to learn to hold them humbly enough that we are able to listen to other truths deserving an airing.
When will the prophet Elijah arrive? Nobody knows for sure. But tradition teaches that it will only happen when the hearts of parents are turned to their children, and the hearts of children to their parents. (Malachi 3:23-24) In other words, when people soften their hearts and listen to the still small voices seeking to be heard, that is when Elijah’s presence will be felt. And on that day, Teyku – the Tishbite will have arrived, and the Messiah will redeem us from our present sorrows.