In 1956, a television show called To Tell the Truth debuted on CBS. The format of the show was as follows: three contestants would claim to be a person of special achievement or occupation— but only one of the three would be telling the truth. A panel of four celebrities would ask the contestants questions to identify the person who was the real Ted Geisel (Dr. Seuss) or Sir Edmond Hillary, and so forth. If the contestants could manage to trick all the celebrity panelists into believing that one of the impostors was the real thing, they would win. But if the celebrity panelists were able to discern the real truth-teller, they would win. The show combined elements that remain relevant to this very day: 1) an American skepticism about expertise—after all, if any one on the street can pretend, with a little coaching, to be an expert or world-renowned professional, what does that say about the supposed uniqueness of the expert? 2) a general adulation for and trust in celebrities to be able to sniff out the truth about other celebrities, and 3) a fascination on the part of regular Americans with truth, identity, and their malleability.
It is no news to anyone that America is suffering today from a truth crisis, with lies tweeted and repeated and broadcast throughout the media, and with ever more polarized political factions accusing each other of lying and playing the identity card. Allegations of fake news and alternative facts get tossed around with such regularity that they have attenuated our collective ability to speak or tell any truth. It is no wonder, then, that in 2016, To Tell the Truth began airing again, this time on ABC.
From game shows to cable news to college campuses, where lecture series and conferences have been convened with such titles as “The Truth Dialogues” (Northwestern University, 2017-2018) and “The Politics of Truth” (American University, March 2018), our culture is awash with concern and consideration of the future of truth in America and in the world writ large. The United States Declaration of Independence, a document born of Enlightenment, trust in reason, and empirical observation, begins confidently with the words, “We hold these truths to be self-evident….” And yet postmodernism and relativism on both sides have cast doubt on the very notion of shared, self-evident truths held by all.
In organizing Symposium 2: These Truths We Hold: Judaism in an Age of Truthiness, HUC-JIR is demonstrating our commitment to full engagement in the contemporary moment as well as to our Jewish heritage as a repository of complex and deep truths. We have assembled a truly impressive list of speakers who will address the subject of truth in Jewish tradition and contemporary Jewish life. They will present a number of important perspectives: biblical, Talmudic, and liturgical notions of truth and divine revelation; pluralism within and beyond the Jewish community; the truths about Israel and the current Middle East reality; the American Supreme Court; journalism and fake news; anti-Semitism and the American Jewish community; Judaism and science as competing and related sources of truth; and the role of satire and storytelling in exposing and confronting the truths about Judaism, faith, and Israel in the contemporary moment. All of these important conversations will take place in Los Angeles at Stephen S. Wise Temple on November 11th and 12th.
Theme I: Torat Emet – a) Biblical and Talmudic Conceptions of Truth
- Below, you will find: (1) a short article by Benjamin Sommer from The Jewish Study Bible about inner-biblical interpretation, namely those instances in which passages in the Bible interpret other passages in the bible; (2) a much longer article by Yair Zakovitch on the same subject; (3) a passage from Bernard Levinson’s 2008 book, Legal Revision and Religious Renewal in Ancient Israel, in which he considers how the authors of Lamentations, Ezekiel, Deuteronomy, and Targum Onqelos reformulate the seemingly unjust principle of transgenerational punishment expressed in the Decalogue’s statement that God “visits the punishment for the iniquity of the fathers upon the sons” (Ex. 20:5); and (4) an online discussion of the expression torat emet from thetorah.com including HUC-JIR professors Rachel Adler, Lawrence Hoffman, Aaron Panken, and Andrea Weiss.
- Included here are: (1) two passages from Moshe Halberthal’s 1997 book, People of the Book: one in which he considers the way Jews have interpreted canonical texts using the “principle of charity”—that is, reading these texts “in the best possible light”; another in which he examines the “codification of controversy” in the earliest rabbinic text, the Mishnah; (2) two passages from Richard Hidary’s 2018 book, Rabbis and Classical Rhetoric: one in which he assesses the extent to which the rabbis engaged with the ancient Hellenistic tension between objective (Platonic) and subjective (rhetorical) conceptions of truth; another that explores rabbinic attitudes toward truth and language by examining midrashim featuring heavenly courtroom scenes; and (3) a variety of passages from rabbinic literature that participants will study at the Symposium.
Theme I: Torat Emet – b) Revelation and Truth in Modernity
- In this section, you may read: (1) the introduction from Sommer’s 2015 book, Revelation and Authority, in which he argues that the Torah itself sows the seeds of the “participatory” theories of revelation eventually championed by the contemporary Jewish thinkers, Franz Rosenzweig and Abraham Joshua Heschel. Participatory theologies emphasize Israel’s interpretative role in the process of revelation; and (2) an online discussion of Revelation and Authority from thetorah.com including Sommer’s own description of the book and a response from HUC-JIR’s Michael Marmur.
Theme II: Sefat Emet – Fake News: Past, Present, Future
- Here are four articles by the venerable and indefatigable Slate Supreme Court columnist, Dahlia Lithwick, that speak the truth about: 1) the challenge to one’s sanity in being a journalist in the age of Trump; 2) Trump’s morally indefensible family separation policy; 3) and 4) her experiences living in Charlottesville during the White Supremacist marches there last summer.
- Writing back in February, David Makovsky details some of the reasons why Israel’s Netanyahu seems to be hanging onto power despite escalating charges of corruption.
Theme III: Emet ve’omanut – Art and Literature and the Truth
- A Chapter from Wendy Zierler’s recently published book, Movies and Midrash, that deals with comedy, truth and its malleability in The Truman Show and the biblical book of Jonah.
- An article discussing the show Hayehudim Ba’im and two provocative clips as a trailer for our discussion on the role of TV satire in investigating troubling religious and communal truths. Co-creators Asaf Beiser and Natalie Marcus will join us at Symposium 2.
Theme IV: Tefilat Emet – Liturgical Truths
- The chapter from Michael Fishbane’s Sacred Attunement, preparation for his joint session on truth in liturgy with Dalia Marx, deals with prayer as a way of cultivating God-mindedness in everyday life, including a frank awareness of the “gifts and gaps in the world.” Fishbane applies the traditional categories of peshat (plain ense meaning), derash (interpretation of hermeneutics) and remez (sign or allusion), to offer different takes on how prayer may cultivate a sense of persons as creatures with intellect and discernment as well as life, death and tradition.
- Dalia Marx’s article offers a variety of traditional and creative strategies for coping with problematic liturgical passages that do not seem to comport with one’s sense of theological truth.
Theme V: Emet Umada – Truth & Science
- Below you will find from Rabbi Geoff Mitelman: (1) a short blogpost from the Sinai and Synapses website showing how scientists and lawyers deploy evidence to different ends: scientists use evidence to develop a better understanding of nature; lawyers use it to confirm a position whose truth was determined by other means; (2) another short blogpost from the same site about the importance of separating identity from ideology in congregational settings in order to facilitate fruitful conversations about contemporary issues.
Theme VI: Dabru Emet - a) Competing Truths in Interfaith Dialogue
- Two short articles are below that discuss presenter Gregory Mobley’s interfaith work and his interest in exploring shared truths and teachings between Judaism and Christianity.
Theme VI: Dabru Emet – b) Competing Truths in Pluralistic Dialogue
- Below you will find a variety of short articles dealing with the need for solidly shared ethical commitments between Jews of different denominations and different religious traditions and the importance of embracing the truths offered by other religions as well as a combination of doubt and certainty in one’s religious commitments.