Sunday, October 22, 2006

Throwing Truth to the Ground

I know this isn't my usual style, but I heard a really nice d'var Torah today that I'd like to share.

It starts off with with the consideration in this week's parsha where that famous line where God says "Let us make man in our image." So the question is, who is "us"? If God is all alone up there doing his creative work, who is he talking to? The most common answer given, as it is expounded in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 38b) is that God is conferring with the angels, his heavenly court, regarding the decision whether to create man.

So there is a midrash which relates that conversation. In the midrash, there are four angels conversing with God. The first, Chesed, says that man should be created because he does good deeds. The second, Emet, says that man should not be created because all he does is lie. The third, Tzedek, says that man should be created for he does act of righteousness. And the fourth, Shalom, says man should not be created for all he does is fight.

So the score is two votes for and two votes against. Seems deadlocked. So what does God do? He throws Emet to the ground. (We might call it a divine veto.) Now with the score two to one, God creates man. But another angel comes up to God and says, how can you throw your seal of Emet to the ground? So God responds, "Let the truth grow up from the ground."

As is common in many midrashim, the meaning behind this one is far from clear. Rabbi M. who gave the d'var Torah just kind of left it there with just the appellation that it was something to think deeply about.

Now I thought this was a neat midrash. Obviously you can't take it literally but there does seem to be a deeper message. To me it seems to speak even more than others because the connection between Judaism and truth is an especially interesting relationship to me. That God would throw truth to the ground for the sake of creating mankind is a very symbolic. But symbolic of what?

On one level we could see it as God making the building of truth man's work. Truth is not in heaven, it is on earth waiting for us to build it up. This would be appealing for a scientist because it basically describes how he'd go about doing his work. And really for any of us who pursue truth, this would be a meaningful interpretation.

But on a different level we can also appreciate the degrees of importance in God's (or the midrash writer's who was speaking for God) perspective on reality. Out of those four key elements, it is truth which God throws down. Presumably God wanted to create man and his reasons seemed to flow around the ability of man to do acts of compassion and righteousness so these are clearly important. But he chooses peace over truth to keep in its ideal position. So while I wouldn't say the Midrash is promoting the idea that truth unimportant, but that in comparison to peace and righteousness it comes out on the bottom. We may never know truth fully, and it would be presumptuous of any man to say that he knows the Truth (TM), but what is key to life are acts of kindness and peace. In the order of values, truth has been humbled.

In Pirkei Avot 3:12, it is written, "[Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa] used to say, 'He whose works exceed his wisdom, his wisdom endures; but he whose wisdom exceeds his works, his wisdom will not endure.'" A testament to the idea that the key to life is doing good deeds and not just the goal of becoming 'wise.'

But on a third level we might be able to understand this midrash as a description of the ethic of Judaism entirely. Us skeptics realize that large swaths of the traditional faith cannot be reconciled with what we have learned through modern scholarship. And if one studies the works of some famous rabbis, there are hints that they suspected as much themselves. Not so much in terms of modern scholarship, naturally, but that the basic thesis had a some problems. Hamayvin yavin.

Yet even though there are issues with questions of fact, the basic values that Judaism progresses in terms of tzedek, chesed and shalom are unmistakable. Truth, in Judaism, according to this midrash, is not something received from above, but grown from below. Like God, we, as a community, may need to sacrifice truth as we think we know it and rely on our basic values to bring Judaism foward. We ought to embrace the truth, whatever it may be, within the basic values of Judaism. That will be the true test and the real challenge for Judaism as we engage these modern times.

14 comments:

XGH said...

Excellent Dvar Torah! Ethics, Morals and Values sometimes trump 'Truth'. I wrote a similar vort a few weeks ago. Thanks.

B. Spinoza said...

This midrash is very difficult, it is like a zen koen. So many questions to ask. I will have to medidtate on it.

Anonymous said...

Seems like what this medrash is saying is, "create your own truth". As a scientist, though,it could be difficult to see anything other than objective truths.

Nice post.

alex said...

Someone asked his rebbe, "if truth was thrown to the ground, it should be readily available to everyone." The rebbe responded, "yes, but most people are too lazy to bend down and pick it up."

Miri said...

maybe it's not so much that we create truth but that the truth grows up around us; it grows of it's own process and momentum, but around the situations that we create, like a crawling plant growing over a building or a lattice - wherever it finds space to grow. kind of a symbiotic simultaneous process. but where does that leave the idea of absolute truth? where does that leave the Torah?unless the Torah is the world and the world is the absolute truth, out of which we grow...but that would seem to say that truth is the ground, not that which grows from the ground, which isn't what the midrash seems to be saying. this is gonna take some thought.

Orthoprax said...

Miri,

Note that 'Truth' doesn't mean 'what is true' but the human understanding of what is true, for 'truth' without conscious appreciation is nothing but empty construct. Therefore, perhaps, truth needs humanity to grow from the ground, for it is our own best understandings on which truth grows.

Miri said...

see, though, I think you're wrong there. if truth were nothing but human perception, then it would be impossible to "search for", "discover," or "find" truth in any of the commonly accepted interpretations of those terms. the only argument I can think of at the moment is that I still believe the persuit of truth is a journey of discovery, and not a human invention. at least not purely. I am wiling to say that maybe there's a halfway meeting ground between the two; that truth is a process of organic growth driven by human thought and creativity. but the whole idea of truth as a meaningless construct without human perception...I'm not sure I buy that.

Orthoprax said...

Miri,

I didn't say that truth is nothing but human perception, but that truth is only meaningful in terms of human perception.

For us to 'build truth' means that we are building our understanding of what is true. For what is true is sitting there pristine and unbothered by anything humans try to do to it.

Miri said...

you seem to think that there is an objective abstract truth, but that it only affects us as people insofar as our understanding allows us to percieve it. I'm more inclined to think that truth is something fluid which is born of human circumstance, and shaped by it. in any case I'm pretty sure that truth is its own seperate entity; the question is, to what degree and at which angles does it interact with human action and perception. and to what extent does that actually make a difference to anyone.

Anonymous said...

Here's the way I understand this midrash, and it is one of my favorites:

G-d was 'metzamtzem' his yichud and created the world as a place of duality and lack of yichud so as to allow the existence of mitzvot, goodness, nisyonot and sin. This is of course only possible because of the creation of duality and differentiation (i.e., a world of duality allows action through space and time; it allows differences of opinion and de’ah and ratzon and midot and levels of wealth (etc.) which are all necessary for the realization of G-d’s plan; it allows falsehood, which means the existence of two contradictory things and we are then able to uncover the truth from among the falsehood, etc., etc.) The purpose of creation is to realize G-d's yichud in this world.

So the duality of creation is what makes chessed and tzedek possible. Chessed and tzeddek argue that the world should be created because they can exist only in this world (see also for example (although not exactly on point) Derech Hashem and many others stating that G-d created the world in order to do chessed). Furthermore, the very essence of tzeddek and chessed is, in some ways, the negation of their opposite in this world and they can exist only through this world. Of course creation's duality also plays a part (and is actually also part of the very essence of) the negation of emet and shalom in this world. True emet and shalom exist as part of G-d and complete unity. So, emet and shalom argue that the world should not be created because concealment and lack of emet and shalom are necessary as an integral part of creation in order for the world to exist.

What does G-d do? Hishlich emet artza -- He embeds emet in this world and makes it part of creation. That is, emet is always there for anybody who truly looks for it and it can never really disappear or be covered. Logic and rationality are built into creation and are a part of it.

So the midrash is not saying that truth is less important than the others; on the contrary, it is saying that truth is more basic to the created world than the others are, and is actually an integral part thereof. After all, emet is also chotamo shel Hakadosh-Baruch-Hu and part of the basic definition (so to speak) of G-d. G-d underlies creation (memale kol almin) so it makes sense that truth is part of the essence of creation. (This brings to mind a quote of Ghandi: At first I thought G-d is true, then I learned truth is G-d.)

So, according to this interpretation of the midrash, truth is, in fact, absolute. We don’t create our own truth; it is just there for us to uncover if we truly seek it, and there is but one ultimate version of truth. That does not mean we can always find it; however, we can come closer to it the more we seek it.

I think this is also partly what R. Dessler is saying in Michtav Me’eliyahu regarding truth being synonymous with G-d.

For more great Ghandi quotes along the lines of the above, see: http://www.gandhi.ca/gandhi/quotes/truth.php

Orthoprax said...

Anon,

That ain't bad. I like the psychoanalyzation of the four values at hand.

Though I would like to see your psychoanalyzation on God and why the realization of God's yichud is the purpose of this world - if he already had that before creation.

Anonymous said...

I would guess that the standard answer to that is something along the lines of (i) the true idea of yichud is realized by the negation of its opposite (yeah, I know, I had a lot of that in my other post too... LOL) and so the created world of duality was a good place to do that. Also, (ii) He wanted to endow chessed and the only way to do that was to create something separate from Him and then endow chessed to that thing and the best way to endow chessed was as part of a world in which we are rewarded for our efforts (the idea of "na'hama d'chisufa", which requires a world of duality), and also a world in which our effort and our reward are essentially the same thing, i.e., the levels we reach by our efforts are themselves the reward in the next world, i.e., the more we work on ourselves and the closer we come to endowing ourselves with the midot of G-d ("hadvek b'midotav; mah hu rachum, etc.") the closer we approach G-d's unity and that level of unity itself becomes our reward in the next world. So we were created as part of a world in which we are somewhat separate from G-d (so to speak) but His purpose was for us to use our efforts to bring ourselves closer to Him.

Much of this is from Derech Hashem. I'm not saying there are no questions that can be asked regarding these concepts (e.g., if G-d is all-powerful, then why could he not create a world in which He could give us his chessed without nahama d'chisufa; or, even if it was necessary to create a world where our reward is dependent on effort, why was it also necessary to create pain and punishment) but they certainly contain much wisdom. Anyhow, I'm not an expert on this stuff and I don't have the perfect answer, although, like everybody else, I would love to find it...

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