Parshat Toldot: “Truth Be Told” is Actually an Oxymoron
This week, in one of my online classes, we had a fascinating discussion about Judaism and multiple truths. In Judaism, we have many debates about whether there is such a thing as absolute truth, or can various truths co-exist without having to determine which is…truly true?
It’s actually difficult to mount a Jewish argument for absolute truth, since our ancient texts clearly describe revelation at Sinai, our Jewish defining event, as one where 600,000 people gathered and heard 600,000 different things — all of them the result of the same revelation experience. Text after text tells us that absolutes could only apply to God, the human domain is a space of relativity.
To take it even further, the ‘truth’ of a moment is usually decided by the authority in charge, and not the actual truth that might be proved. As an educator, I learned of a case where a high school English teacher put a poem on the final exam. The students were asked to write an essay on the central theme expressed. One student wrote an essay that was returned with a barely passing grade and the teacher commented that although they had discussed a theme, it was not the central theme. The student wrote to the author of the poem and included the exam question, their answer, and the teacher’s response. The author supported the student’s reading of the central theme. When all this was brought back to the school for evaluation, the school decision backed the teacher and dismissed the author. The ‘true’ answer was what the teacher had taught in class, not the author’s stated truth about the poem.
Once I learned of that incident, any time my kids would ask me a question about their homework, I would always begin my answer by saying: ‘are you asking me this because you’re wondering about it, or are you asking me because you’re studying for a test?’ I felt it important to teach my kids that truth has a context.
Over the years, my kids have brought multiple truths to my attention as they encounter them on social media. By multiple truths, my family has included what Neils Bohr (famous Jewish Nobel Prize winning physicist) observed: “Sometimes the opposite of a fundamental truth is another fundamental truth”. (It helps when scientists echo what ancient Jewish texts have said all along…but I digress.) Social media has fun challenges about multiple truths. For instance, the famous ‘is it blue or is it gold’ dress:
Some people genuinely see this as a white dress with gold, while others genuinely see a blue dress. Apparently, they’re both correct.
Or, for the math lovers among us:
Due to the order of operations, there is legitimately more than one answer to the equation.
But I’m not referring to misunderstandings, like this one:
- though you can’t help but love the student who does that…
Nor am I referring to a ‘made-up truth’ that is the result of denial, like every toddler who blames their sibling for the spilled juice, even though all siblings are at school at the moment…
Jewish multiple truths refers to the honest perception a person has of what they consider the truth, which is then offered in the open arena of Jewish discussion so others can expand their thinking of what they thought was their truth. Multiple truth encourages humility within us, since everything I think I believe is now open for listening to someone else’s view — it might also be true.
In fact, there are so many examples of this in Torah, it’s a challenge to list them. Several of them occur in this week’s parshah, Toldot. One of the main instances of multiple truth surrounded Rebecca and Isaac in how they built their family.
Rebecca is pregnant but feels something is wrong — too much activity in her womb. She seeks an answer from God and is told that what she is feeling is two nations that are struggling within her. She is also told that the elder will serve the younger. She trusts this answer completely, to the point that after her children have grown, she will actively deceive her husband so that the younger one (Jacob) gets the covenantal blessing. Total trust in God, no questions asked.
Isaac, however, has a different experience of the world. The Torah says that he has bonded to his son Esau because Esau is a hunter (Jacob makes vegetarian soups). It makes perfect sense that Isaac bonds to the son who hunts, the son who uses a knife to provide food for him. It’s not a coincidence that Issac, whose father Abraham placed a knife to young Isaac’s throat years before…on God’s orders…now bonds with his son who uses a knife to protect and provide. What was a threat from his father is now the security from the son.
It’s also not a coincidence that Isaac barely ever speaks to God and God mostly leaves Isaac alone. According to Isaac’s world view, the relationship with God could turn on a dime, so best not to open too many doors.
Rebecca and Isaac are married and are the second generation of Matriarch and Patriarch. One trusts God fully and gives herself over to that truth, while the other backs away and bonds with the non-covenantal son. Both their truths are correct.
There is a beautiful midrash that discusses how before God created humanity, God threw Truth to the earth where it shattered into infinite shards. After humanity is created, each person embodies within them one of the shards of truth, and together, when we listen, we reveal more and more, and grow. We discuss and debate so we can combine shards of truth and learn of a greater picture.
As the Jewish people, we are a diversity of view and opinion which each of us believes is truly what Judaism means to us. We learned this approach at Sinai, and we celebrate it as foundational.
As one rabbi put it: Just because I’m right doesn’t mean you’re wrong.