I want to look back, before the tale we read from the Torah today, the tale of the binding of Isaac, to an earlier tale told of Abraham. It’s not a tale from the Torah itself, but a Midrash woven into the Biblical story, but it is a very old Jewish story.
Abraham, the Midrash teaches, was the son of an idol salesman, Terach. One day Terach left his son in charge of the shop. Abraham takes a hammer and smashes the idols leaving the hammer in the hands of one surviving statue. When his father comes home he asks his son, ‘What’s happened,’ ‘Well,’ responds the son, ‘There was a fight over who would get to eat a plate of flour someone bought as an offering and this one won.’
For those of us who like to keep track of this sort of thing, this isn’t really a case of Abraham is lying to his father. Rather Abraham is using language to signify the opposite meaning to the language he was using - that’s called irony. It has a fine and long tradition in Jewish thought. I digress.
Terach accuses Abraham of stupidity - of course the big statue hasn’t wielded the hammer, and Abraham responds to his dad, ‘Don’t your ears not hear what your mouth says!?’ He’s accusing his father of living a life of deceit. And Terach doesn’t appreciate being accused of living a life of deceit - so Abraham gets sent off to the ruler to be taught better of it.
The great ruler Nimrod gets in a logic battle with the upstart Abraham, and loses. Of course, he’s going to lose, he’s an idolator and this is a Jewish story. But the thing that interests me is the way young Abraham is portrayed as a person whose commitment to truth prevents him from taking the easy option; just be nice to your dad, just be nice to the ruler, don’t get in trouble. Rather Abraham makes a fool out of his dad, and a fool out of Nimrod. And for this, the story continues, Abraham gets thrown into a furnace for his troubles.
Two lessons from this story;
Telling truth to power gets you in trouble.
Ultimately truth wins out. Nimrod and his culture of deceitful idolatry is gone, and we are still here.
The thing I’m interested in today is the pursuit of truth.
We all face opportunities to commit ourselves to truth, and we all face opportunities to take other options. In so many ways this is the story of this community. We are only here, New London is only here, because our founding Rabbi, Louis Jacobs, had the option to recant, take back his truth claims about how the Torah came to be, and refused. For this he got in trouble. He lost his job, he lost the chance to be Chief Rabbi with the fancy house and gong that would surely have come to him. And here we all are.
Aside from a belief that, in the end, a commitment to truth will win out over a commitment to one kind of dishonesty or another, I don’t really have a choice about being a student of Rabbi Jacobs. I can’t get my soul around a religion perpetrated on deceit, or a hand-in-the-sand attitude to how and when Judaism developed. And it may be that more fundamentalist forms of religious fervour seem superficially more powerful. But this is the only kind of religion I can love.
We live in strange times for the pursuit of truth. Jonathan Freedland, writing earlier in the year, suggested that the greatest contest of our age is the contest between truth and post-truth.
“We are [he wrote] in an era when the argument is no longer over our response to events, but the very existence of those events. These are symptoms of a post-truth disease in which the truth or falsity of a statement depends on whether the person making it is deemed one of us or one of them. [He continues] information is evaluated based not whether it supports the tribe’s values and goals and is vouchsafed by tribal leaders.”
Do you need examples? There’s Russia and Novichok, Trump and ... well lots of things, there’s Brexit, or Brexin, or Israel or the environment, or ... Freedland refers to a school shooting in Florida where one response from the pro-gun lobby to the death of children was to claim the massacre had not happened at all, and that all those grieving parents and teenagers were “crisis actors.” It’s harder to come up with areas of public life that are free from what Freedland calls “tribal epistemology” - things meaning the things we decide they mean based on their tribal allegiance.
“The greatest contest of our age is the contest between truth and post-truth.”
My sense is that there are two ways to find truth; let me call them the poetic and the prosaic.
Now I love poetry.
You see how the world goes? King Lear asks Gloucester.
I see it feelingly, Gloucester responds.
How wonderful to see feelingly.
There were whispers of the poetic path towards truth in the Torah reading from this last Shabbat.
Torah, we were told on Shabbat, is not in the heavens so we should say who should go up to the stars to bring it down for us. Rather, the verses read, it is very close, in your mouth and in your heart so you shall do it.
That’s poetry for you and its lovely.
Poetic truths burrow into our hearts and set our worldview without our really realising; an evocative image, a captivating turn of phrase. Poetry dismantles our defences so its claims seep into us.
Poetry is so much more delightful than the other thing; the search for prosaic truth.
But here’s the thing about poetry - when Gloucester says, ‘I see it feelingly,’ he’s blind. He’s forced to see feelingly because he has no other option. The rest of us should use every faculty we possess.
This December marks the 200th Anniversary of the publishing of a 30 page article with the unassuming title, ‘On Rabbinic Literature.’ It was written by a German academic, Leopold Zunz and marks the foundation of what’s called Wissenschaft des Judentums - the critical, the prosaic, study of Judaism. It’s one of the most influential pieces of scholarship in Jewish history. It’s the sort of scholarship I was taught in my Rabbinical studies in New York. It’s the sort of scholarship Louis was taught - not in his Yeshiva studies - but when he went to UCL, when he entered the world of the academy.
It’s the sort of scholarship that explains how the great Piyutim of Rosh HaShanah could never had been written were it not for the disciplines of Arabic and Islamic rhetoric. It explains how the very institution of the Synagogue takes as inspiration early Christian church practice. It explains, even, the relationship between the Biblical book of Exodus and the older Code of Hammurabi. That’s a lot of sacred cows dispatched in a few sentences, but these are the things the careful, scholarly, prosaic pursuit of truth has taught those of us who wish to see not only feelingly, but with a commitment to what actually is and has happened.
You want to know what an ancient text means, you have to dig out textual variants, hand-written manuscripts boxed up in different libraries scattered across the globe. You have to set the text in its ancient context - that means having to learn a slew of languages both ancient and modern. It means taking seriously philology, history, sociology, anthropology - it’s exhausting. And at the end of it, you often find yourself disturbed by the very claims you have now proved.
If you are into poetic expressions of truth, then, yes, God dictated the Torah to Moses. But if you seek prosaically, and this is how Louis put it fifty years ago, we treasure a “composite work, [containing] material coming from diverse sources, compiled at different times, some of it, at the very least, dating from long after Moses.”
Here’s the really challenging thing about the difference between the poetic and the prosaic search for truth. We feel most excited about poetic truth when we agree with the truths we find. But prosaic truth disturbs us, and our sacred cows. It breaks things. In scholarship - prosaic scholarship - scholars are more excited by insights that overturn existing assumptions than insights that reinforce what we were previously thinking.
And my point is that Judaism is, always has been and absolutely should be, committed to the prosaic, careful, iconoclastic pursuit of truth. As Solomon Schechter, another of the great prosaic scholars of Judaism - put it, “The Jew was the first and fiercest Nonconformist of the East. To break the idols, whether of the past or the present, has always been a sacred mission of Judaism.”
He wrote well, did Schechter, and Zunz, and of, course, Rabbi Jacobs. There is poetry, even in the prosaic pursuit of truth. There is poetry in what we are doing here today. But we are, “seeing feelingly,” not by failing to use all our faculties. We are seeing feelingly, having engaged critically - having looked hard. That’s what gives us faith in the honesty of our emotional reactions. This is why it’s worth being part of a community like this. This is why it’s worth being a New Londoner, a Masorti Jew.
But this is about more than which Shul we turn up to on Rosh Hashanah. This is - as Freedland put it - about the, “the greatest contest of our age.”
So here are some tips - how to search for prosaic truth, on this day of judgement - the sorts of truth that the world desperately needs.
Prosaic truth can be found everywhere. Moses learns how to create a just society from Yitro the Midianite Priest. The Talmud recounts tales of Rabbis learning from non-Jews, from servants - male and female, even the hated Romans even the cat, even the ant. If you care about prosaic truth you can’t close your eyes to truths based on where they come from. You can’t be tribal in your epistemology.
The pursuit of truth has to be allowed to destabilise our levels of comfort. In fact it might even be the reverse is true. Any level of comfort, without a desire to destabilise that comfort, may well be self-imposed deceit. In the Midrashic collection Bereishit Rabba we find Rabbi Yosi Ben Hanina saying,
כָּל אַהֲבָה שֶׁאֵין עִמָּהּ תּוֹכָחָה אֵינָהּ אַהֲבָה - any love that isn’t accompanied with critique isn’t love.
And Rabbi Shimon Ben Lakish saying,
כָּל שָׁלוֹם שֶׁאֵין עִמּוֹ תּוֹכָחָה אֵינוֹ שָׁלוֹם - any peace that isn’t accompanied with critique isn’t peace.
These are fighting words in a society where criticism is too often labelled treacherous, where disagreement is seen as a flaw. That’s terrible news. We need to stand up for the values of disagreement, we need to critique our own claims, support those who wish to criticise us and stand up for the value of discomforting truth-seeking.
Thirdly; the prosaic pursuit of truth needs to be conducted with a certain commitment to process.
There’s a famous Talmudic passage about a three-year old argument between Hillel and Shammai. Eventually, a heavenly voice declares Hillel’s position is to carry the day. Why?
“Because they were kind and modest, they studied their own rulings and those of house of Shammai, and would mention the sayings of the house of Shammai before theirs.”
In the original passage both claims, of Hillel and Shammai are held to be the words of the living God, but I can’t help but think that it’s precisely because of the modesty of Hillel’s position, the commitment to hear the other voice, that Hillel’s side reaches the level of truth that ensures their viewpoint is accepted.
If you want to find truth you have to look everywhere, you have to be willing to be discomforted by what you might find and you need to commit to a truth-seeking process.
We are, as a human race, too powerful to allow ourselves to be shaped only by the poetic pursuit of truth. We are too dangerous to allow ourselves to be shaped only by, “seeing feelingly.” Our tendency to slip into tribal epistemology is threatening not only our faith, but the fabric of our society, it’s threatening the planet.
In the year to come I call on us all to pursue truth more prosaically; to seek truth even in awkward places, to seek truth even as it destabilises our comfort, and to seek truth in ways decent and modest. And in so doing we should merit living up to the standard of Avraham Avinu - the first and fiercest Nonconformist of the East.
 Act 4, Scene 6
 Studies in Judaism, First Series, p.xxi
 Megillah 18a
 Eruvin 105
 Eruvin 18a