HUC-JIR Symposium 2: Pre-Learning Syllabus - Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion
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HUC-JIR Symposium 2: Pre-Learning Syllabus

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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.

How to Use These Materials

The list of readings below, from and by the various speakers who will be featured in the Symposium, as well as by other current influential thinkers, is meant to serve as a bank of resources to orient you and members of your community to the kinds of discussions and views to which you will be exposed at the Symposium.  Check back periodically, as we will add more material as it becomes available.  

The articles on the list were written and/or provided by our Symposium presenters. Each is accompanied by a brief description of its contents. We invite you to use this syllabus in the way that makes the most sense for you and your community. For example, you might:

• Use these articles as the basis of adult education discussions this fall;

• Distribute the articles weekly, one at a time, to spur discussion with a confirmation class;

• Pair an article that looks at Jewish notions of truth with a different piece that deals with crises of truth from a scientific or general political perspective, and have your communities look at them together;

• Consider how these readings can serve as a guide as you undertake social justice activities in your community;

• Share an article or two in your weekly newsletter, Facebook group, or email to community members as an example of something you are thinking about; or

• Bring members of your community to Symposium 2 as a capstone to your communal learning.

Indeed, all of us need to play a role - not just in studying these issues - but effecting a positive change in our communities so that notions of truth and civility can be reinstated and reaffirmed in American and Jewish life.

Theme I: Torat Emet – a) Biblical and Talmudic Conceptions of Truth

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 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

Theme III: Emet ve’omanut  – Art and Literature and the Truth

Theme IV: Tefilat Emet  –  Liturgical Truths

Theme V: Emet Umada – Truth & Science

Theme VI: Dabru Emet  - a) Competing Truths in Interfaith Dialogue

Theme VI: Dabru Emet  –  b) Competing Truths in Pluralistic Dialogue