Rosh Hashana 2 2017
I don’t know if what I sometimes experience during a service also happens to you occasionally. One phrase from the texts, or just one word, jumps out of the general smooth surface of blah that we are saying or singing and really catches one’s attention. Don’t misunderstand me – of course all the words we have in the machzor are wonderful and thought-provoking and packed with meaning and relevance – but…you know what I mean, they can float by us, or we can float away somewhere else while they are happening. So what I’m talking about is that moment, that occasional experience (occasional for me), when something pokes through the surface same-old, same-old, blandness and really captures my attention, my imagination. Like being at sea and suddenly a dolphin leaps out, playful and attention-grabbing. Or maybe like the glint of a shark’s fin – and one senses there’s danger there. Sometimes the words in our liturgy invite us in to play, at other times they might contain hidden threats, they can bite us, confront us, endanger our wellbeing or our complacency.
Well, this year the word that keeps getting at me is a little word that we say quite a lot, whether in the Hebrew or in the English. It’s the word emet – true/truth. “Your word is true forever”, “It is true that the Eternal God is our Sovereign”, “It is true that You are the Faithful One…who rescues and delivers us”, “The sound of the shofar breaks into our lives. It shatters our illusions and we awake to truth”. Emet – dolphin or shark? What kind of truth are these texts proclaiming, exposing us to? do the truth claims hold up, or do they expose themselves to ridicule? “It is true that You are the Faithful One…who rescues and delivers us” – how do we, after the Shoah, get away with this? What kind of ‘truth’ is this, that we repeat day in day out, year in year out, during our services? What sense does it have? What sense do we make of it?
So, I’m setting my stall out right now. The ‘truth’ stall. There’s a lot of examples on display here, vying for attention. And I’m going to come back to them soon. But I’m going to set out another market stall next to it. And let’s call this other stall by the term that during this last year was named ‘Word of the Year’ by the Oxford Dictionaries: yes, it’s our old-new favourite word, ‘post-truth’. Let’s have a look what’s on the ‘post-truth’ stall.
Well, if I asked you to create a list right now what would come to mind?
Trump and his ‘alternative facts’ and the finger-in-his-ears, la-la land of his internal world which calls ‘fake news’ anything he doesn’t want to hear. Many politicians – including not a few American Presidents (many of you, like me, are old enough to remember Nixon) – bend the truth (which is sometimes complex), or avoid the inconvenient truths, but Trump is gruesomely fascinating in being the first one who seems genuinely to revel in lying. Which includes lying to himself, which we all might do on occasion, but he’s made it into a defining character trait. In doing so he’s creating a post-truth presidency based on feelings (his own unregulated, erratic and narcissistic feelings) rather than facts.
So Trump is an easy target. Our first exhibit on the post-truth stall. Probably sharing pride of place with that other phenomenon that possibly came to mind when I asked what might be displayed on the post-truth stall: Brexit and that notorious £350 million a week figure, on the side of the VoteLeave bus, that would be freed up for the NHS once we left the EU; or the perhaps more pernicious post-truth claim by Farage and others that Turkey would be joining the EU in 2020 and this would allow 70 million-plus sexually-predatory Muslim terrorists into the UK.
Well these are obvious examples of post-truth phenomena in our current landscape. I’m sure you could all add items to the post-truth inventory. Because actually ‘post-truth’ claims have been around for a long time, almost as long as recorded human history – if by ‘post-truth’ we mean, as the OED now defines it: “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”. So the infamous Russian anti-Semitic pamphlet of 1903,The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, describing a Jewish plan for global domination would be a classic example of a post-truth document, as would the blood libels issued verbally against Jews for the 800 years before that. Jews have particular historical reasons to be sensitive to, and to call out, post-truth texts and claims. They are always dangerous to – and sometimes deadly to – someone’s wellbeing, individual or group.
The more you think about it, the more you can see how much we are surrounded by post-truth. The advertising industry used to be built on it – though there’s regulation now to mitigate some of the more slippery bits of ‘truthiness’. Newspapers are full of it, some more than others. I name no names. On this occasion.
But if we are thinking about what in our world relates to or denotes “circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”, what about religion? With that definition the New Testament and the Gospels would be completely ‘post-truth’ documents – naked appeals to emotion and personal belief. So what about (closer to home) the Hebrew Bible, the Tanach, the Torah – is this just another post-truth text?
God making the world in 6 days? Adam and Eve? Truth or post-truth? The patriarchs and matriarchs, are they real historical figures (“objective facts”), or creations of the literary imagination of inspired national storytellers? The Exodus from Egypt of 600,000 Hebrew slaves, crossing the Red Sea, Moses receiving Torah at Sinai? Truth or post-truth? Are you shifting uneasily in your seats? I hope so.
Suddenly our two market stalls – truth and post-truth – seem to be uncomfortably close together. In fact – interesting phrase: ‘in fact’ – what’s on display on them may be getting all jumbled up. We need to do some sorting out here. Well, I say ‘we’, but actually – because this is a sermon and you are on holiday – I’ve done some thinking for you, and I’ll share what I’ve come up with. I’m not claiming that my perspective is the ‘truth’, by the way, but it’s not ‘post-truth’ either. Let’s just call what I’m saying provisional signposts towards what’s ‘true’.
The fundamental point about the word ‘true’ or truth’ – and the word emet in Hebrew – is that it covers two rather different kinds of human experience. One kind of experience, and we are immersed in this, is about facts, reason, logic, the mind, scientific understanding, mathematical understanding. It is true that 2 + 2 = 4, the capital of France is Paris, Auschwitz was an extermination camp with gas chambers, penicillin was discovered by Alexander Fleming in 1928 at St.Mary’s Hospital here in London, there was once a king of the Hebrew people called David who ruled from Jerusalem. All of these are true – there is evidence of different kinds to back up their claims to being true. And a million other examples could be set out on our truth stall.
But none of them in and of themselves offer meaning in our lives – and although some people are happy to live in a world just of facts and statistics, others of us are interested in questions of meaning and purpose, a world where we need comfort after someone dies, where we need hope when things look dark, where we feel there is value in our activities and relationships – a world of emotional and spiritual realities that are true, or that we hold are true, in a quite different sense. I don’t want to live only in a world of information and rational thinking where meaning can be found through a Google search – as important as that world is : I wouldn’t want to live in a world without penicillin, without the know-how to make that and a thousand other medicines, the result of a hundred and fifty years of rigorous truth-searching in chemistry and biology and so on.
The modern world – the world of electricity and technology and scientific endeavour – is a wondrous human achievement. It is truth seeking, finding answers to questions of ‘what?’ and ‘how?’ But it doesn’t address our human aspirations and dreams, and our innate human questions about ‘why?’, our questions about meaning. Why did that person have to die? or leave me? Why does she seem more popular than me? Why is he more successful than me? Why am I always struggling, or on the verge of tears? Why do they always seem so happy? Why am I moved when I see others’ suffering? Why am I not moved when I see others’ suffering?
For those kind of questions – and there’s a million of them – we need another kind of truth-telling, the truths contained in stories, in art, in novels, in myths, in psychology, in poetry, in – dare I say it, in religion – all of which create meaning . This other kind of truth is not rooted in historically accurate information but in the truth of the human spirit and the more elusive aspects of human experience. These kinds of truths can’t be proven rationally or arrived at scientifically.
You can’t prove that love is a more creative impulse for human society than hate; or that generosity is more life-enhancing than greed; or that compassion is a sounder basis for building a meaningful life than cruelty. These things are true, I would say, although you can always find counter-examples – but they aren’t true in the way that 2+2 = 4 is true. These truths don’t belong to the world of ‘logos’ but to the world of ‘mythos’ – this is the ancient Greek distinction between two kinds of truth, two categories of truth. And if we confuse these two categories we can end up in a lot of trouble. In the history of religion people got – and still get – oppressed, persecuted and killed because of the muddle between ‘logos’ and ‘mythos’.
Nowadays the word ‘myth’ has lost its original meaning – when we say something’s ‘a bit of a myth’, we tend to mean it’s not true; it’s even come to mean that something is a lie. But it’s a real shame – and sometimes a tragedy – that ‘myth’ has lost its original meaning of a narrative or story that offered meaning to human life, that gave a perspective on values, that created a container, a framework, to help us think about the purposes of human life and family life and social, community life; ‘mythic thinking’ generated narratives and stories that spoke about the daily dramas and dynamics of our lives, and the fragility of all human life, and animal life, and natural life on this irreplaceable, extraordinary planet, a cosmic speck in the universe.
I think there’s a lot of confusion between these two kinds of truth – ‘mythic’ truth and ‘rational’ truth, if we use a shorthand. If you read the opening chapters of Genesis through the lens of rational truth, we can see that it is absurd, in the light of scientific knowledge, to believe that the world was created in 6 days. Some people of course do believe in that literal understanding of the text. But as a poetic myth, the story of how humanity emerged as part of an evolving process, stage by stage, which then moved generation by generation into family groups, then tribal groups, each with their own identity and purpose, and we trace how the Hebrew Bible’s ‘mythos’ develops its story with this small undistinguished Hebrew tribe finding itself with a value system and a destiny to live out certain values and be an inspiration and model for other tribes and nations – wow, this is another kind of truth-telling, and we find we are in the middle of a truth-creating story, a truth-revealing story, a story about meaning and purpose, in which we can, and still do, locate our own lives.
So that when we read in our liturgy now – the liturgy being the creation of generations of rabbinical writers who accepted that original ‘mythos’- truth-generating story as having something of value to shape their own lives – when we read the words they composed : “Your word is true forever”, “It is true that the Eternal God is our Sovereign”, “It is true that You are the Faithful One…” then yes, our ‘logos’ mind can jump in and question, ‘but is this true, it’s not rational, it’s not scientific!’.We can get snagged on that part of us, like being in a wool jumper that gets snagged on barbed wire and starts to unravel, those internal or external ‘logos’-dominated voices can pierce us and unravel our minds.
But if our mythically-sensitive minds, otherwise known as our souls, wait a moment and allow the words in, allow them to breathe in us, to inspire us, allow their meaning-generating mythic wisdom to embrace us, hold us, these words – words like “It is true that You are the Faithful One…” – they can cajole us, seduce us, into inspecting our lives, and asking ‘what are we faithful to?’, ‘what do we value and hold dear?’
“Your word is true forever”: how can God’s ‘word’, that is God’s ‘mythic’ truths – about justice and compassion and lovingkindness and generosity and mercy – how can they help shape our lives, our vision, our daily actions? These values aren’t post-truths. Care for the stranger, the outsider, the homeless, the impoverished – this is written into our ‘mythos’, the story the Jewish people has been telling itself for millennia.
They are the signposts that can give us direction, provisional signposts maybe – yet still they are signposts towards what is true. They are – as in the title of the new exhibition by the American artist Jasper Johns at the Royal Academy – they are “Something Resembling Truth” , these words, these teachings – at least until anyone or anything can point us in a better direction towards what is emet, “true forever”. But after two and half millennia I’m not holding my breath for that to happen any time soon.