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Seeing the Whole Elephant: Finding Truth in a Post-Truth World
“You’re more likely to be struck by lightning than anything bad happening to you here. Trust me, there’s nothing dangerous in these waters.”
Those were among the last words that Shannon Fowler, a marine biologist, had a chance to say to her young fiancé before he died suddenly on a beach in Thailand in the summer of 2002.
When Sean rushed to shore and fell to the ground Shannon had no idea what had happened. A group quickly gathered around them and as Shannon recounts in her book Traveling with Ghosts, time stopped. Somehow Shannon ended up at a doctor’s office with two Israeli girls, Anat and Talia, who, despite being strangers, refused to leave her side. The doctor urged Shannon to sign the Thai death certificate for Sean. But, what does it say? The Israeli girls forced the doctor to translate.
“Cause of death”—drunk drowning, said the doctor.
With Shannon in shock Anat and Talia took control—that’s not true—look at the welts all over his legs!
Even though Sean’s legs were twisted with red marks it took some convincing before the doctor reluctantly conceded--then it must have been an allergic reaction, he said. Two days later, Anat and Talia uncovered a story of a similar death—which prompted them to ask more questions. Over the course of many years Shannon pieced together the Truth.
Sean had not been allergic.
There is a venomous species of box jellyfish in Thai waters whose sting simply kills.
While villagers claimed that Sean’s death was the first in many years, Shannon later discovered that police had posted signs to avoid the water for this very reason. Villagers had taken the signs down out of fear that tourists would disappear. Shannon also discovered that hundreds of people were getting stung and killed all over the tropics in deaths that were regularly ruled drunk drownings to protect the local economy.
I had the privilege of eating dinner with Shannon and her mother this past summer shortly after Traveling with Ghosts was published. Shannon told me that it still plagues her that she, a marine biologist, had been so certain there was nothing dangerous in the water that day. And yet, she had been so wrong.
Shannon’s story has haunted me ever since.
How do we know what we know to be true?
When we are met with falsehoods or grey areas is it our individual responsibility to seek Truth?
Is there even an objective truth that we can identify and hold onto in a postmodern world?
Yom Kippur invites us to explore the question of Truth on every level:
It demands that we inquire of ourselves: am I living a life of integrity aligned with what I know to be true?
It beckons us to listen with renewed openness to the truths of others.
It asks us to stand before the universe, with all of our fear and trembling, and to confront its True nature.
This Yom Kippur journey into relationship with Truth feels more urgent than ever this year. It was in 2006 that Stephen Colbert coined the word “truthiness” to mean “the belief in what you feel to be true rather than the facts to support it.” But in the decade since, this phenomenon has taken such a dizzying turn that last November the Oxford dictionary chose Post-Truth as its word of the year. The buzzwords alternative facts and fake news are ubiquitous—and I promise you I wont say them again in this sermon—we are tired of hearing these words for a reason. It’s been thirty years since Jean Baudrillard became a celebrity among American intellectuals by declaring that “the secret of theory is that truth does not exist, that in fact reality and meaning itself is disappearing” and now philosophy professors report that the overwhelming majority of college freshmen don’t believe in moral facts. Our current era of unbridled social media and open-source journalism has augmented our ability to express opinion as fact with no ultimate authority beyond ourselves. The frenzy and vitriol that results from this conflation of opinion with Truth, as Rabbi Stacy mentioned last night, is hardening our hearts, calcifying our beliefs, and frankly leaving us alienated and exhausted. Absolutely we must open our hearts, but how?
On a trip to Washington DC in June I attended a meeting with top journalists from the NYtimes, Wall Street Journal, and Washington post—they all happened to be Temple Micah Synagogue members--which is the very kind reason they had agreed to meet with a small fellowship of rabbis to talk with us about the meaning of Truth.
What they shared with us was fascinating. Each panelist agreed that we are living in an unprecedented moment, one they had never before experienced as journalists. But they emphasized that the term post-Truth misses the mark. They were happy to talk with us about fact-checking and emphasize that citizens must learn the differentiate between facts, opinions, and beliefs that are evidenced-based and those that are not. Research with integrity like your life, your country, your world, depends on it—because it does, they said. But any of our questions about Truth with a capital “T” they turned back on us. Truth, they said, is the domain of philosophy and religion and they were not prepared to pass judgment on its lifespan or expiration date. What was even more fascinating is they seemed to be yearning for an absolute Truth that we could share with them. In a surprise twist they had turned us back to Judaism to guide us through the maze of this moment.
Author and media theorist Douglas Rushkoff recently spoke on the podcast Judaism Unbound to update his 2004 book Nothing Sacred: The Truth About Judaism. He said—and I agree--Judaism is a gift for our species at this moment in history because it is and has always been an open-source tradition—that is--a tradition in constant dialogue and inquiry with itself. Staying with the question is an enduring Truth of Judaism.
Judaism knows in its kishkes what philosopher William Irwin suggests of navigating this moment: “We should try to unsettle others as we remain open to being unsettled ourselves. In a spirit of tolerance and intellectual humility, we should see ourselves as partners in a continuing conversation, addressing an enduring question. What is important is the common ground of the question—not an answer.”
And we’re back to the texts on Hillel and Shammai--Eilu v’ eilu divrei elohim chayyim—these and those both are the words of the living God.
This is easier said than done.
The divisiveness we see in our country is not only between Republicans and Democrats and is not only being played out on our television screens. It is right here in our community. Last year when we were planning the Not In Our Town event meant to raise awareness about local anti-Semitism and racism a member of our congregation stopped by the office. What about all the hate speech in Fairfax-San Anselmo around the issue of the charter school? Are you going to do anything about that? It’s incredibly upsetting. Friendships and neighbors are being torn apart. As he spoke my mind flashed quickly to my own beliefs and judgments about charters vs. public school. I couldn’t help it. After all, I’m a proud public school product. I admitted that while I had seen the Stand signs around town, and was attracted to them because they appealed to my revolutionary nature, in reality I knew little about the conflict. I realized that without knowing anything I already had a bias. I thought little more about the conflict until two months later when I discovered I was one bridesmaid in a party of five—three of whom were teachers at the much-maligned so-called charter school. In between bites of cheese at the wedding shower I asked as many questions as I could to understand the conflict. What I discovered was heartbreaking. The teachers had endured so much pain that one had moved to Petaluma just to escape the venom she experienced on a daily basis. Since meeting the charter school teachers I have also made sure to talk with other people about all sides of the conflict. I have remained with the common ground of the question—rather than jump to a conclusion about which side owns the Truth.
In his book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics and Religion moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt tells us that when it comes to what we believe to be True, intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second. For all of us, no matter how developed our intellect—it’s human nature.
Knowing this can help us pursue the inquiry of the question beyond our first instinct.
Each week I study with about fifty students on Sunday mornings in two exploring Judaism classes. It’s my absolute favorite time of the week. Together we engage this vast open-source tradition of ours and, as Rushkoff says—nothing is sacred—meaning—no question, no thought, is left off the table. Over the course of three years teaching at Rodef Sholom I am regularly met with the same assumptions and questions about Judaism:
Can I be Jewish and not believe in God?
Can I criticize Israel openly without being criticized by the Jewish community?
Can an openly ardent Zionist and still be a part of this community?
Does calling ourselves the chosen people mean we are inherently racist?
Is the story of the Exodus True?
The assumption behind many of these questions often is: There is one True way to be Jewish and I’ve determined that the way I’m doing it is probably wrong, or at least, not quite right. And I’m going to be found out for the fraudulent Jew that I am. I am always quick to say that to me all of those questions are quintessentially Jewish and celebrate the pluralistic fabric of our community. Plus, it keeps things interesting. The beauty of Judaism as I see it is that it has always offered options for both absolute and relative Truth.
Take for example the following midrash. In Exodus Rabbah [5:9] we learn that when God speaks to each Israelite at the time of the revelation of Torah God is heard in a way appropriate to each and every person. God’s voice was heard and understood because the voice spoke to each individual according to that person’s particular ability to hear and understand…to the elderly in keeping with their ability, to the young in keeping with their ability, to the little ones in keeping with their ability, and so on. These Jewish insights into revelation give expression to what one might call a post-modern sense that we each experience and see things differently, yet God is able to work within these human limitations to be in relationship to us. We each come to dialogue around the table with a different understanding wanting to share with each other what is true for us. After sharing we see a little more of the whole together than alone.
Some of you are familiar with this teaching from the famous parable of the blind men and the elephant. While originally from the Hindu tradition I actually found the story repurposed for Judaism on the Aish website—with no reference to where it came from—go figure. The moral of the parable of blind men assuming an Elephant looks different based on the body part they know through touch is that one's subjective experience can be true, but that it is inherently limited by its failure to account for other truths or a totality of truth.
This is what we do when we discuss text around the beit midrash—the study hall—together. Our collective preference corresponds with Reform Judaism—that each one of us brings our own experiences to bear as we make Jewish choices through knowledge of the tradition. But there are moments when our post-modern sensibilities give way to a yearning and understanding of the absolute Truth that governs our tradition—the oneness of God—or oneness.
Last week in class we shared a personal mystical experience. While the definition of mysticism is to seek and know the oneness of God, not all people who shared an experience of oneness are believers in God. Here are a few of their answers.
I had a mystical experience when
my father died and I could feel his soul fill the room as it departed his body.
The moment when there is a spark of discovery.
When I really connect with another person.
As everyone shared a hush fell over the room. We could barely breathe. We shared the understanding of a Universal truth.
The Mishnah tells us that when two people study together the Shekhinah dwells between them. Rushkoff calls this divine space the space of the question. It is from my hunger and love for this experience that I have grown into one of the deepest personal truths I know about myself—that teaching is my greatest love. And yet, fifteen years ago I just as firmly knew about myself that I had no interest in being a teacher. When my parents encouraged me to get my teaching license because it was practical, I did so kicking and screaming.
It was my teaching mentor, Michele Forman, a national teacher of the year recipient, who first taught me to honor my personal Truth but also to always hold it lightly and with a question as something that evolves and changes through time. Michele passed away earlier this month and so I think of all I learned from her in a new light on this Yom Kippur.
My first day in the classroom I couldn’t stop looking at my notes.
Michele taught me to let them go—relationships with the students were more important than content.
And I felt my belief that I had to know everything to be a teacher slowly slip away.
When I left a message for Michelle from the emergency room at 5:00 in the morning in severe abdominal pain before surgery to tell her I was so sorry but I wouldn’t be able to bring the donuts to class that morning I received an angry message from her in return:
Take care of yourself first she said. What were you doing apologizing to me in that message??
And I learned to let go of my deeply held truth that messiness is bad and I had to be perfect.
When Michelle called me the following year with an opportunity to take over her classroom when I was back home living with my parents and waitressing to save money for Israel…and I told her no, I wanted to waitress, at the expense of my superego message.
It was then that I learned for the first time to listen to the voice inside me that said, please stop pushing yourself so hard.
But above all she shared with me her love of teaching…and my heart was turned. I fell in love with the classroom, the students, the questions, all of it. It’s hard for me to believe there was a time in my life when I thought—I’m not supposed to be a teacher. I wonder what evolving personal truths lie ahead for me in the coming years?
On Yom Kippur, we are called to listen to the kol d’mamah dakah, the still, small voice that confronted the prophet Elijah with the powerful spiritual question: Why are you here? What is your life’s purpose? Judaism honors the importance of connecting with our personal Truth while it’s tradition of inquiry and dialogue invites us to allow personal Truth its natural evolution.
The word for Emet in Hebrew is Alef, Mem, Tav. We chant it throughout the High Holy Days. The three letters which spell emet are the beginning, middle and ending letters of the alef-beit.” The alef corresponds to one’s initial awareness of Divine paradox in the infinite source (where the higher and lower waters, joy and bitterness, are absolutely one). From this awareness issues mem, the fountain of Divine wisdom, ever- increasing power of insight into the mysteries of Torah. The final end of knowledge is not to know.
Yom Kippur calls upon us to examine our personal truth and to call into question how it aligns with what we know to be relative and absolute Truths. Lastly, Yom Kippur reminds us that objective Truth is aspirational.
To be a truth-teller, to not self-deceive, to not deceive others, to freely admit all that we do not know—all of these are aspirational goals.
To observe the ten commandments, to follow the commandments of loving the stranger, of pursuing justice, of honoring our parents, and refraining from jealousy—these two are aspirational.
Truth, with a capital T is aspirational and inspirational.
When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. Twenty-four professors from top institutions around the country were asked to reflect on this statement—and none were able to without acknowledging the tension in this document—that the founding fathers did not consider all men, never mind women equal.
Truth can be flawed in its execution—but that should not deter us from its pursuit. It should only embolden us. Inspire us to a deeper knowledge of ourselves and a higher moral purpose. Yom Kippur calls on us to push beyond the intuition that prevents research and inquiry. It calls on us to pursue truth in its ultimate sense.
Shannon Fowler’s quest was to discover the truth of her fiance’s death and to write a book about her love for him, even at the expense of her marriage, in order to preserve his memory.
Michelle Forman’s truth was to share with students her great love of history and to help them question their assumptions about how the past has been told.
My own truth, in this exact moment, is that I am filled with love because my parents are here today celebrating the High Holy Days in Marin with us for the first time. And I am grateful every day that the mystery of this universe brought us together.
As Americans let us continue to aspire to the eternal truths that still feel just beyond our reach, to which we know we have not yet arrived and yet somehow we believe there is a Truth that binds us all.
And for us, here in this room today. Our Jewish community. I know and I’m proud that
We feel differently about God
That we feel differently about Judaism
That we feel differently about Israel
But Eileh Ezkerah—these things we remember
We remember our common birthright.
Connected whether by family, ancestry, by choice or marriage
We know this truth in our bones
Our belief in the enduring faith of the Jewish people and the beauty of this tradition.
And when at the very end of this day when the evening light comes into the sky and we see those three stars
And we proclaim
Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad
Baruch Shem K’vod Malchuto L’olam Va’ed
Adonai Hu HaElohim
Over and over and over and over…
It is to say that we are a people who recognize that our Eternal Truth has bound us together for centuries.
When we proclaim those words together this evening may we feel a true sense of that Hashiveinu—that return to ourselves, to our kol d’mamah dakah, our individual Truth.
And a return to each other—that knowledge that there is a Oneness that binds us together as a Jewish community
And as a human family.
Kein Yehi Ratzon—May It Be So.
Catapano, Peter and Simon Critchley. Modern Ethics in 77 Arguments: A Stone
Reader. New York: New York Times Company, 2017.
Glass, Ira. “Lies Become the Truth” on This American Life.
Fowler, Shannon Leone. Traveling with Ghosts: A Memoir. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2017.
Haidt, Jonathan. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics and Religion. New York: Vintage Books, 2012.
Ignatieff, Michael. The Ordinary Virtues: Moral Order in a Divided World. Boston:Harvard University Press, 2017.
King, Barbara J. Evolving God: A Provocative View on the Origins of Religion. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007.
Rushkoff, Douglas. Nothing Sacred: The Truth about Judaism. New York: Three River Press, 2003.
Thompson, Evan. Waking, Dreaming, Being: Self and Consciousness in Neuroscience,
Meditation, and Philosophy. New York: Columbia University Press, 2015.