What is Truth?

It is said that the great Maggid of Mezhirech, Rabbi Dov Ber, at first was cool to the teachings and methods of the Baal Shem Tov (Besht), the founder of the Hasidic movement. The Maggid was known for his tremendous mastery of our holy writings: Tanach, Talmud, Midrash, and Kabbalah; the Besht emphasized a more experiential approach.

At their first meeting, the Besht was uncharacteristically distant, confirming the Maggid’s prejudice that the Besht was without depth. As the Maggid was preparing to leave, the Besht asked him for his interpretation of a passage from the Kabbalist Ari on angels. Pleased at being asked to demonstrate his knowledge, the Maggid and the Besht retired to the Besht’s study, where the Maggid expounded with great delight on the passage. His translation was flawless, his recall of all the commentaries on the topic complete, and his interpretations on the nature, purpose and need for angels extensive. After twenty minutes of exposition, the Besht said, simply, “That’s not the way I think one studies the topic.”

Taken aback – and a little insulted – the Maggid asked, “And how would you study?”

The Besht began to chant “Al Malachim,” and at that instant the study was beset by a raging wind, blue fire sprang from everywhere, and the Maggid ducked beneath the desk to avoid being struck by any number of flying objects! Just as suddenly, the room returned to normal, and the Besht smiled down at the Maggid:

“Now that’s the way to study angels.”

This week, we read in parasha Yitro about the ultimate in the raucous penetration of our world by the Divine – the giving of the Aseret ha-D’varim (the “Ten Commandments”), complete with thunder, lightning, and all the ways in which the world would tremble at such an event. How should we understand such things?

Each of us must come to grips with reports of the fantastic, whether they come from Torah, Midrash, or the activities of the sages. Some take them as fact, and pray that the day will come soon (may it be in our lifetime!) when all will be made clear. Some stand at the other side of the spectrum, skeptical of what seem to be early attempts at Industrial Light and Magic, preferring to look on these as “merely” stories, literary events best understood as imperfect transmissions of oral traditions.

Still others seek out the facts which may have given rise to the stories, such as volcanoes at Sinai, flash floods in the wadis near the Sea of Reeds, and so on. I prefer a different approach.

There is a difference between Truth and fact, just as there is a difference between religion and science. In each case, the two “opposites” attempt to describe our world in a way that provides meaning and predictability. However, the difference between them is not one of conflict, but of complementarity. A story’s Truth is independent of its factual status: trying to have both is not only unnecessary, but dangerously confusing.

For example, does the Bible speak for or against evolution? The answer is: that’s the wrong question. The Truth of the Bible is that we live in a universe created by G-d, a G-d who desired for humanity to exist, not merely lumps of inanimate clay or soulless animals. The mechanism of that creation – once we place it in G-d’s “hands” – is, in my view, irrelevant from a religious perspective. Understanding and deepening our relationship with G-d is religion’s fundamental task, not developing a scientific description of facts.

My challenge to you – to all of us! – is to listen to the rich Truth that infuses our Torah and our stories, and leave worrying about the facts for those times and circumstances when science is required. Truth and fact, religion and science describe our world – let us rejoice in the opportunities such perspectives give us to marvel at G-d’s creation!

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