Kol Nidre 5778/2017
It’s been a bad year for the truth.
A very bad year.
We’re only now, day by day, learning much real news was maligned as fake news. And how much fake news was dressed up to look like real news. большое спасибо, Мать Россия – Thank you very much, mother Russia.
We are a nation of believers. We Americans believe, really believe, in the supernatural. Two thirds of us believe that the Bible’s creation story is true. Two thirds of us believe in telepathy and ghosts. More than half of us are certain that heaven exist. Not that there’s nothing wrong with that! Religion presents a valuable kind of truth but it is often more a matter of faith than fact.
Beyond matters of faith, we believe things that are demonstrably wrong. Consider this picture from Kurt Andersen in the month’s Atlantic: “A third of America believes not only that global warming is no big deal but that it’s a hoax perpetrated by scientists, the government, and journalists. A third of us believe that the government, in league with the pharmaceutical industry, has hidden evidence of natural cancer cures; that extraterrestrials have visited or are visiting Earth. Almost a quarter of America believe that vaccines cause autism, and that Donald Trump won the popular vote in 2016. A quarter believe that our previous president maybe or definitely was (or is?) the anti-Christ. According to one poll, 15 percent believe that the “media or the government adds secret mind-controlling technology to television broadcast signals,” and another 15 percent think that’s possible. A quarter of Americans believe in witches. Remarkably, the same fraction, believes U.S. officials were complicit in the 9/11 attacks.”
Significantly, the third who believe X and the quarter who believe Y, are different thirds and quarters of the population. These subgroups overlap and egg each other on; for instance, belief in extraterrestrial visitation and abduction can lead to belief in vast government cover-ups, which can lead to belief in still more wide-ranging plots and conspiracies.
The bottom line: We are not living in a fact-based world. Reality is up for grabs.
How did we get here? Tonight, I’d like to address that question and then focus on the tension between faith and religion on one side, and reason and science, on the other. I plan to suggest that Judaism provides a way to synthesize and ultimately embrace both.
First, when I say truth, I mean empirically measurable reality. Like, the earth is round. Such truths were always attacked, especially at first. Making scientific observations that conflicted with Church teachings were often punished. For having taught that the sun, rather than the earth, was the center of the universe, Galileo was confined to house arrest for his last years. Less well known was the fate of Giordno Bruno who, for teaching the same thing, the church burned alive.
Since then, we’ve come a long way; yet, we occasionally regress. Consider what I’ll call the “political” science of evolution: In 2008, 75% of republican candidates said they believe in evolution. In 2012, 33% said they did. In the 2016 presidential race, only one did and that one, Jeb Bush, was careful to say that evolutionary biology was only his truth, that “it does not need to be in the curriculum” of public schools, and that if it is, it could be accompanied by creationist teaching.
Religion is only one element undermining scientific truth and rational thinking. The nineteen sixties brought a cultural revolution, which emphasized the individual’s freedom to define reality. The hostility toward truth was growing.
Philosopher Michel Foucault argued that rationality itself is a coercive “regime of truth.” Sociologists Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann went further, arguing that societies’ rulers and elites dictate not only customs and laws; they are the masters of everyone’s perceptions, defining reality itself.”
Anthropologists concurred: “What is ‘real’ to a Tibetan monk may not be ‘real’ to an American businessman.” In other words, don’t judge. If all understandings of reality are socially constructed, they reasoned, the rituals of Kalahari tribesmen in Africa are no more arbitrary than those of college professors. Welcome to the world where all truth is relative.
On the chopping block, in addition to the ideas of reason and reality, were wisdom and expertise. Experts were viewed as tools of the state and corporations. Science, itself, was simply state religion. To create “a new culture in which the non-intellective capacities … become the arbiters of the good [and] the true,” one writer put it, “nothing less is required than the subversion of the scientific world view, and… the “radical rejection of science and technological values.”
To this way of thinking, all approximations of truth, science as much as any fable or religion, are purely a social construct. The borders between fiction and nonfiction are permeable, maybe nonexistent. Delusions, superstitions, and magical thinking? Believe whatever you want, because pretty much everything is equally true and false.
By the eighties and nineties, the broadcasting fairness doctrine that ensured a balance of political views was gone and the airwaves were coopted by the likes of Rush Limbaugh. It was at this point that Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan begin to say that people were entitled to their own opinions but not to their own facts. Why then? Because until then, it had not been necessary to say.
Nothing accelerated the emergence of non-reality based thinking more than the Internet. Information was democratized and now anyone with a laptop and an opinion could spread his point of view around the world. Worse, the web search algorithms – tended to raise to the top of the queue the most outrageous falsehoods, ensuring that in time they’d become self-validating.
For instance, beginning in the ’90s, conspiracists decided that contrails, the skinny clouds of water vapor that form around jet-engine exhaust, were composed of exotic chemicals, part of a secret government scheme to test weapons or poison citizens or mitigate climate change—and renamed them chemtrails. If you google chemtrails proof, you’ll find plenty of evidence of the nonexistent conspiracy. You’ll also see that the world of conspiracy theory is interconnected. Someone seeking information on chemtrails, for example, will quickly find material on antigravity, UFO’s free energy, Atlantis studies, alternative cancer cures, and more.
By the nineties and the oughts, the wheels began to completely come off. Fox News, Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity, Alex Jones and infowars, and conspiracies too many to enumerate, made it difficult to see what, if anything, was true. As journalist Josh Barro wrote: “They have convinced voters that the media cannot be trusted; they have gotten them used to ignoring inconvenient facts about policy; and they have abolished standards of discourse. On one hand, it turned out that keeping people angry and frightened won elections. But over the past few decades, a lot of the rabble they roused came to believe all the untruths. “
I don’t mean to single out Republicans. After all, God and the Torah are registered independents. And the American uniquely paranoiac style of politics is alive on the far left as well as the far right. Yet since the nineties, with the fall of communism and the decline of violent crime in America, the fringe right became only more vocal. Reagan, now gone, became their guiding light, yet as one author put it, “they ignored or didn’t register that he was practical and reasonable, that he didn’t completely buy his own antigovernment rhetoric. Now his hopped-up true-believer faction began insisting on total victory. But in a democracy, of course, total victory by any faction is a dangerous fantasy.”
And that is prologue for what we’ve experienced since last Yom Kippur:
- Political speech, like news, that bears no discernible relationship to the truth.
- An administration of government officials who lie to the press day after day.
- And a president who has sought to attain credulity by expressing mind numbing untruths, all day long.
If our current state of affairs tells us anything, it’s that our president is not the cause but the symptom of what’s happening. We’ve just entered the epoch of what one writer calls the “Fantasy Industrial Complex,” the attempt to create an alternate reality that serves the political purposes of the moment and can be completely in conflict with reality.
The result: we elected someone who made 400 statements during the campaign, almost 50% of which were false and another 20% were mostly false. And yet, as factually challenged as he is, he touched some deep emotions in the American people. He understood that most people are motivated more by what they feel than by what they think. And he was remarkably consistent on this point. For example: When asked: “Do you think that talking about millions of illegal votes is dangerous to this country without presenting the evidence?” he replied. “No, not at all! Not at all—because many people feel the same way that I do.”
Tonight, I’d like to suggest that Judaism offers an alternate way of approaching the search for truth, one that harmonizes the perspectives of science and religion.
First, Judaism never demanded a choice between the truth of Darwin or the truth of God’s testament. While others saw it as an either or proposition, we understood to be both/and.
Truth is one and God is one and the name of God is Truth. So says the Talmud (Sabbath 55a) “chotmo shel hakodosh baruch hu emet” – “the seal of God is truth.”
The rabbis point out that that the word Emet is composed of the first, middle and last letters of the Hebrew aleph-bet, suggesting that truth is all encompassing and comprehensive. Truth is like God; as God is one, truth is one and universal.
This point becomes clear in a Talmudic discussion about some matter referring to the calendar and the movement of the moon and stars. Some of the rabbis cite “chochmay Israel” – Jewish sages. But some Rabbis cite “chochmay umoth ha-olam” – Gentile sages. And the Talmud concludes by saying: we follow the pagan sages because in matters of astronomy they are superior to us. Truth is truth no matter its origin.
Far from being incompatible, Scientific truth and the moral truth of the Torah compliment and enhance one another. They do so by avoiding literalism. 12th century teacher, Maimonides, puts it sharply: “Literalism robs our religion of its beauties, darkens its brilliance, and makes the laws of God convey meanings quite contrary to their intended meanings.” So too 19th century Rabbi Yehuda Berlin, who cites commentaries defining Torah as poetry rather than prose. Therefore, he continued, to understand Torah you have to understand symbols and parables and metaphors and allegories. Torah, he concluded, is art, a spiritual interpretation of life, not a mechanical record of facts.
Yes, yes. But for those of us still in a reality based existence, which is true? Science or faith? Genesis or Darwin?
You may have seen a recent video making the rounds – a fifty-year old man suffering from a severe form of color blindness receives a special pair of glasses which enable him, for the first time in his life, to see and distinguish colors.
Now imagine the two accounts given by the inventor and the recipient.
The scientist who invented the glasses explains the technology the glasses use to filter and separate muddled colors, a complicated technique called chromatic contrast enhancement. He describes the process by which he discovered a way to enable the color blind to see with more detail and definition.
The other account comes from the recipient of the glasses; He describes the event in terms of excitement, tears and gratitude. His account is filled with ecstasy, poetry and awe. He describes the first time that he saw his newborn child’s rosy cheeks and his first witness of the true colors of a brilliant sunset.
Which of these two accounts is true? Which of these two accounts is truer? Are these two accounts contradictory? Both refer to the same event. But their intents differ entirely. Both accounts are true but are judged differently according to their purpose.
Jewish philosophers and theologians from Philo to Maimonides, from Saadya to Soloveitchik understood that there was no conflict between science and faith because they served different purposes.
- While Science is concerned with facts, Torah is concerned with value.
- While Science is concerned with “what is,” Torah is concerned with “what ought to be.”
- While Science is morally neutral in that It tells you “how” not “what for;”
- Torah is ethically focused. It points to meaning and purpose.
- And that while Science offers us knowledge. Torah offers wisdom.
So, you see, the rabbis had no difficulty with the evolution of the world. In fact, one of the great rabbinic enthusiasts of Darwin’s evolution was the first Chief Rabbi of Palestine, Abraham Isaac Kook. The world, the rabbis reiterate, is incomplete, unfinished evolving. From the viewpoint of Judaism, evolution requires human help.
Because science is morally neutral, we should never allow science to dictate our values; instead we should recognize Judaism as the “conscience” of science. The same science that has produced life-saving medicine and surgeries has also produced crematoria, death camps anthrax and smart bombs. Science needs Judaism’s moral critique.
But that can’t happen without our involvement. We have a crucial role to play in evolution. Rather than accept the world as it is, we are commanded to transform it: Torah is the conscience that helps us direct the arc of nature’s trajectory.
One way to that end is to begin telling stories of hope. During these same past few decades, Americans reduced the rates of murder and violent crime by more than half. We decoded the human genome, elected an African American president, recorded the sound of two black holes colliding 1 billion years ago, and created Beloved, The Simpsons, Angels in America, The Wire, The Colbert Report, Transparent, and Hamilton. Since 1981, the percentage of people living in extreme poverty around the globe has plummeted from 44 percent to 10 percent. While the rise of fake news makes us despair, we need to remind ourselves not everything has gone wrong.
Kurt Anderson, who wrote the article “America’s Lost its Mind” in this month’s Atlantic, suggests the following:
- We need to firmly commit to Moynihan’s aphorism about opinions versus facts.
- We must call out what is presented as truth but is dangerously unreal. As you listen to others’ truth claims, ask yourself – what values are being represented?
- It will require a struggle to make America reality-based again. Fight the good fight in your private life. You needn’t get into an argument with the stranger at Chipotle who claims that George Soros and Uber are plotting with the Zionists to outlaw light beer —but do not give acquaintances and friends and family members free passes.
- If you have children or grandchildren, teach them to distinguish between true and untrue as fiercely as you do between right and wrong and between wise and foolish. The truth is that important.
- We also need to adopt new protocols for information-media hygiene. Would you feed your kids a half-eaten sandwich a stranger handed you, or give them medicine you got from somebody at the gym? As an old cold warrior once said, trust but verify!
- And fight the good fight in the public sphere. Those of you who read my letter know how upset I was about what happened in Charlottesville. The good news is that people, lots of people rose up to protest. We can’t allow ourselves to be worn down by lies and untruths and we must remain vigilant.
There is, however, one whopper of a caveat: As Rabbi Donniel Hartman taught in a piece entitled, “For the Sin of Certainty,” “we have to abandon the certainty that I have the truth and others do not. The certainty that I am right and others wrong. The certainty that I am good and others bad. The certainty that I love my country and others do not.”
Our God and God of our ancestors, in our search for truth we are neither so insolent nor so obstinate as to claim in your presence that we are certain. Nevertheless, bless us with glimmers of the truth;
from Hartman’s place of humility, and listening to others with an open heart, may our search for truth bring us manifold blessings and a sense of meaning and purpose to our lives.
Rabbi David B. Cohen
Kol Nidre, 5778 | 2017
 Kurt Andersen, “How America Lost Its Mind”, The Atlantic, September 2017
 Alessandra Stanley, “Honoring a Heretic Whom Vatican ‘Regrets’ Burning”, New York Times, February. 18, 2000
 , Luke Brinker, https://www.salon.com/2015/02/11/evolution_and_the_gops_2016_candidates_a_complet_guide/ , Feb.11, 2015
 Ibid., Kurt Andersen
 Paul Alexander, ‘Fantasyland’ review: Kurt Andersen argues that America has eschewed reality for fantasy, facts for fiction”, Newsday, Sept 6, 2017
 David Barstow, “‘Up Is Down’: Trump’s Unreality Show Echoes His Business Past”, New York Times, January 28, 2017
 Maimonides (12th century), Perek HaKhelek, Rabbi David Hartman, Truth and Philosophic Quest, Jewish Publication Society, 2009
 Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin (1816-1893), Commentary on Deuteronomy 32:44: ”And Moses came and spoke all the words of this song in the ears of the people.” According to Rabbi Berlin, shirah (song) refers to the Torah.
 Ibid. Kurt Andersen, Atlantic, September 2017