This post was originally delivered as a Rosh Hashana sermon at Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in 2017/5778 as part of a series entitled “Forbidden Phrases for the New Year.” You can hear audio of the sermon through the Kol Hadash Podcast or directly here.
I do NOT like saying “I don’t know.” I knew I had found a good partner in life when my then-future wife figured out how to tell the difference between when I knew what I was talking about, and when I was taking my best guess. Sometimes the guess was right, sometimes not, but the correct answer should have been “I don’t know.” Of course, we were dating in the dark ages BSP – before smart phones. If, right now, I ask a factual question, like “Is the US still officially at war with North Korea” or “what year did Jews first arrive in North America,” can you resist the urge to reach for the truth, just a few thumb taps away? Or, at least, all the truth that’s fit to Google.
You see, there IS truth out there; not your truth or my truth or our truth or their truth or liberal or conservative truth or secular or religious truth. Some questions may not have truthy answers like the year Jews reached North America; some facts can be up for debate. But if we surrender ALL claim to ANY truth, if we accept every subjective reality as equally valid, we give up on something essential about being human. And for those who cannot take the uncertainty, Jews first arrived in North America in 1654. That fact, at least, is not “post-truth.”
This year’s High Holiday series is called “forbidden phrases;” the name is problematic – we value freedom of speech because we value freedom of thought, and you should be able to say what you think. In the United States, with limits for public safety like inciting violence or yelling fire in a crowded Rosh Hashana service, we CAN say what we want. But free speech does not mean consequence-free speech. If you proclaim yourself a Nazi, I can condemn you, I can boycott you, in an at-will employment state like Illinois you can be fired, I can even put a thumbs down rating on your YouTube video. Free speech is not consequence-free speech, and that means I need to do more than just say what I think; I need to think about what I say and the impact it has. Remember the language choices “Pro-Life” and “Pro-Choice,” or why we are Humanistic Judaism, based on what we DO believe and celebrate rather what we do not. Language matters – the Holocaust era poet Avraham Sutzgever, drawing on his own experience escaping HIS generation’s Nazis, once wrote “walk on words as on a minefield”.
We know why the Oxford Dictionaries’ 2016 word of the year was “post-truth” –between social media, internet trolls and Twitter bots, ideological self-segregation, confirmation bias (when we prefer facts that support what we already believe), and new extremes of consequence-free political speech, “post-truth” seems to describe the world all too well. Here’s how Oxford defined “post-truth”: “denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” To repeat. Where objective facts are less influential than appeals to emotion and personal belief. When I read THAT, I was reminded of the wisdom of Ecclesiastes, “there is nothing new under the sun.” That is not a “post-truth” reality – that is reality!
The more we learn about HOW the mind words, the more we know that objective facts simply ARE less influential than emotion and prior beliefs! William F. Buckley once defined a Conservative as someone who stands athwart history yelling “Stop!” Our Humanism should not be a philosophy that stands athwart human nature yelling, “think, don’t feel!” We can encourage people to think more, but our deep emotional brain is far deeper than recent ideas.
We are emotional thinkers – moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt describes our rational minds as a human riding an elephant, and the human’s job is to justify whatever the elephant does. And yet, despite our emotions – or maybe because of them – there is a human temptation for absolute truth. We want to know, and we do not want your best guess or approximately or likely or maybe. Traditional religion promises truth and certainty – The world was made in exactly six days, beginning on Rosh Hashana. Here are the 10 commandments or the 613 commandments or the 2,700 pages of Talmud that tell you exactly what to do with your life, what to wear and what to eat and what to say and what to think. If you still have questions, take the Torah of Truth and turn it and turn it for all is inside it, said the rabbis. Indeed, you may already know all the truth there is – there is a Jewish legend that before a baby is born, an angel takes the new soul on a tour of the entire world and teaches it everything. Then, just before the birth, the angel puts its finger on the baby’s upper lip and says “shhhh,” and all the knowledge is forgotten, to be remembered over the course of a lifetime. Of course, this legend is an origin myth for that little indentation under your nose (no need for smartphone suspense – it’s called a “philtrum.” I looked it up on my phone, where I also found that we are not officially still at war with North Korea because we never DECLARED war on North Korea – it was a “police action.”). This myth of the angel saying “shhhh” also tries to explain HOW we know what we know – we’re really just remembering. This is not originally a Jewish explanation – the Greek philosopher Plato also had a theory of human knowledge as recollection. Religion, Plato, Torah, philosophy – they all try to answer that key question: how do you know what you know? How can you know if something is true or “fake news”?
Enlightenment thinkers rejected the “truths” of traditional religion – for them, the “good news” was indeed “fake news” – but they did not reject religious certainty for the factual nihilism of “post-truth.” Modernist philosophy was convinced that we knew things, we knew them for certain, & we would eventually know everything. Evidence, reason, science: these would answer all the questions, big and small. It was a heady time of discovery: from the power of the atom to secrets of the genetic code and the Big Bang origin of the universe. There were cracks in that foundation. New discoveries questioned prior certainties – light could act like a particle AND like a wave, depending on circumstances. Individual and cultural bias in the pursuit of knowledge became undeniable – historians were not purely objective stenographers with no agenda. As we learned to question authority, from industry-supported science to corporate-owned media to the presidency itself, we became experts in the insight of the opera Porgy and Bess – “it ain’t necessarily so.” Not everything could be measured, certainly not now and maybe never. So POST-modernists at their extreme questioned any claim to objective knowledge – they were post-truth before we called it “post-truth!”
In some ways, Jewish culture was post-truth before post-truth. One of my favorite short Jewish books is called Zakhor – remember, by the Jewish historian Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi. Zakhor explores the difference between Jewish history and Jewish memory – Jewish history is what happened, as best we can tell. Jewish memory is what we THINK happened, what we believe, and it is very hard to change memory using history. The stories we learn from grandparents or retell at Passover seders have deeper roots than tentative archaeological discoveries. Fifteen years ago, Conservative rabbi David Wolpe got into trouble by saying at his congregational seder, “We know from archaeology that the Exodus didn’t really happen the way the Bible describes it.” Shock and dismay from the congregation! My favorite quote from an LA Times article about the incident: “Did he have to say it at the seder?” In other words, it may be true, it would be fine in an adult education class in the library with 20 people, but why say that in the sanctuary during the actual holiday? In Humanistic Judaism, we take a different approach to Jewish history – we distinguish between story and history, and we learn both. I’m sure you know some who prefer story to history, belief to fact. Is a traditional Passover seder “post-truth”? What about a Rosh Hashana service – is it more effective as an anniversary of the world’s creation and a day of cosmic judgment, the last chance to get back on the straight and narrow, or can we refocus the holiday on the need for self-judgment and human responsibility?
As if we needed more hurdles beyond how the human mind works, the unreliability of human-created knowledge, and the weight of Jewish tradition, the world just does NOT like truth tellers. When the Prophets condemned the Kings of Israel for oppressing the poor, the prophets were persecuted. In Greek mythology, Cassandra is known for telling the inconvenient truth and tragically not being believed. We resist hearing bad things about people we admire, people on our team, people who had a positive impact on the world even if they were not perfect. Think about my job officiating at funerals – absolute honesty is NOT the best policy. And yet, even then, there is a place for the truth told in an emotionally sensitive way. If the deceased were a very critical person, I might say “she had high standards, she pushed you to excel.” It sounds positive, and the family knows what I mean. And maybe they start to see it from a new perspective – she wanted the best for them, their health and happiness and success, even if she could have shared it better.
Please understand that no one is committed to the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. This summer, I sent in my High Holiday sermon descriptions and, in what COULD have been a sign, I received the June National Geographic with the cover story “Why We Lie”:
…researchers found that the subjects lied on average one or two times a day. Most of these untruths were innocuous, intended to hide one’s inadequacies or to protect the feelings of others. Some lies were excuses – one subject blamed the failure to take out the garbage on not knowing where it needed to go. Yet other lies – such as a claim of being a diplomat’s son – were aimed at presenting a false image.
The article points out that lying is part of the developmental process: children learn to lie between ages 2 to 5, and the proportion of people who tell a few lies per day changes – the peak age for small lying? Ages 13-17, almost twice as likely to lie as ages 6-8 or ages 60-77. Is anyone surprised?
You may be asking yourself, “Has the RABBI been lying? Is he really a FAN of ‘post-truth’ after all?” Absolutely not. I believe in human truth, which is ALWAYS “to the best of our knowledge.” To return to the elephant, human knowledge is a bit like the story of 3 blind men trying to describe an elephant (ear, trunk, leg) – we humans have partial knowledge with many limits: our own experience, our cognitive bias that filters what we learn, our cultural framework, our limited time compared to the vastness of possible knowledge. However, we are much more than 3 blind men feeling out an elephant – what about 300 people or 3000 people of many backgrounds and experiences exploring what would have to be a very patient elephant? They might discover where the ear meets the head, how the leg leads to the torso, where tusks and trunk intersect. Perhaps we would never know EVERYTHING about the elephant for all times and for all elephants, but we could certainly know a lot.
The value in the secular critique of religious knowledge is learning to abandon absolute truth. The value in the post-modern critique of knowledge is that it helps us to correct ourselves, to adjust and refine our truths like a rower who learns to pull differently given changing current, or wind, or fitness or rowing partners. Other people can point out our biases if we listen, not to destroy the possibility of truth but rather to improve OUR ability to find it. Jewish feminists point out blind spots in rabbinic literature when it comes to gender and women’s experiences that male rabbis have ignored for centuries. And that’s good, because now our teaching can be more true to more people.
If we accept “Post truth,” it means giving up on that very human project to know – “post truth” does not just mean “you have your truth and I have mine.” “Post truth” really means “no truth”. Some prefer it that way – if they are not bound by evidence or history or logic, they can say whatever they want without accountability. Then free speech is indeed consequence-free speech. And we continue our balkanization into separate silos of knowledge – talking to ourselves in our own closed systems of truth, with dialogue increasingly impossible.
Step one is to admit that we have a problem and to name it – “post truth” – something we can describe but should never accept. What do we do NEXT?
First, physician, heal thyself: practice the truth you want to see in the world. If it’s too good to be true, maybe it is. How do you know something is true? Is there a reason I WANT it to be true? Smartphones have been a blessing and a curse, but one of the blessings is easy access to facts if you know where to look. Snopes.com is a good place to start – they’ve made a career out of separating truth from “post-truth,” and with good evidence you can check yourself. Remember that great Facebook Meme some of you have seen – “Don’t believe everything you read on the Internet,” said Abraham Lincoln.
Second, learn how to persuade. Remember, you’re talking to the elephant, not the person riding the elephant and justifying what the elephant wants. It’s not “just the facts, ma’am” – we need facts that move emotions. A personal human story will appeal to more people than statistics alone. The Sarasota Herald-Tribune recently published an exhaustive study of criminal justice and race in Florida that shows bias, despite a system designed to give clear point scores to guide sentencing. The charts and numbers are striking, and then you see the faces and read the stories of two 17 year olds, both with 3 prior juvenile convictions, both charged with armed robbery for stealing a few hundred dollars with a gun, in the same county. The sentencing guidelines, under which they scored the same points, said 4 years was the lowest permissible sentence, and both offenders took plea deals – but one’s plea deal was for 4 years in prison, while the other received probation with no incarceration. Need I clarify which offender was black and which was white? The statistics help make this is not an isolated case, or just one county, but the individual story makes the point even stronger – we may want to deny this reality as “fake news”, or to retreat behind the comfort of “post-truth”, or to say this is a political issue rather than one of justice or righteousness, but it’s that much harder to hide when the story is that clear.
If an argument comes from a place of fear, you are not going to pull the other person back from their “post-truth” by starting with “that’s ridiculous, you have nothing to fear.” That is another way of saying, “you’re just wrong,” which is often heard as “you’re just dumb.” There’s a popular saying that teaching without learning is just talking. If that’s true, then arguing without persuading is just noise, or helping you feel better about yourself but not moving forward. When I was a graduate student, I received a great piece of life advice when they told us that grading would be much more effective if A) we avoided using RED pen, and B) we started by writing something nice about the essay before offering criticisms. If you want to persuade someone they are wrong, you need to affirm them in some way first – I understand why you’re afraid, I see your point about X, but it doesn’t change my mind about Y. If there is a truth to be told, there are ways to tell it so it may be heard, and understood, and possibly agreed to. “I value the Exodus story for its message of freedom; the history is where we disagree.”
Finally, the reality that there can be many perspectives on one issue does not mean that we acquiesce to “post-truth” – there can be many truths simultaneously true. I once met with the adult children of a woman who had died in preparation for the funeral. Both of her children told me that she was not a great mother – not nurturing, not caring, self-centered, it was a very difficult relationship for each of them. Before the funeral happened, I was lucky enough to talk with the deceased woman’s GRANDchildren, and they had a very different perspective on her – warm and encouraging and loving and engaged. It’s almost like they were talking about two different women – and they were! 30 years later, at a different stage of life without the stress of child rearing, having grown as a person. At first I asked myself: how can I present the truth of this woman and her relationships? Then I realized that both the children and the grand-children had given me true representations of their relationships with her. Life, and people, and reality are complicated, and sometimes many truths is not post-truth, it IS the truth.
This is part of the inspiration of seeking the truth, being responsible to the truth, that has driven knowledge from the atomic to the cosmic, hearing many voices and perspectives on the same human reality. It is a universal human project, to understand who we are and what the world is, and I will not give it up. Sometimes we know the truth deeply without revelations or angels or anything beyond ourselves.
I would like to conclude with a passage written by our Rabbi Emeritus Daniel Friedman, whose life work is a testimony to the pursuit of truth in Jewish life – we are the heirs to his courage in standing up for a Judaism dedicated to truth.
We know more than we can see. Particles too small to see, we know, are the essence of reality. The earth we call home is but a beam of dust lost in a crowd of unseen silent suns. The innocence of children, the secret language of lovers, a flood of joy surprising the heart – these too, we know through senses finer than the eye.
Tonight we rest our vision and open the eyes within. We would know goodness; we would seek truth; we would honor justice. Beyond the world of cash and clamor is a more enduring realm. Here are found integrity, courage, righteousness. The quiet fellowship of this hour renews that world and restores it to our sight.
L’Shana Tova! A Good New Year to all! And I mean it!