‘I was a boy who told lies. This came from reading.”
So opens one of Russian-Jewish writer Isaac Babel’s most memorable stories, “In the Basement,” about a young boy who invents outlandish tales about his family in order to impress Borgman, an affluent, intellectually gifted peer. The relationship between truth and storytelling is one of the central issues of this coming-of-age story. None of what Babel’s narrator tells Borgman about his own family and background existed. What did exist, however, “was far more extraordinary than anything I had invented, but at the age of 12 I had no idea how to grapple with the truth of my world.”
Writers and literature professors like me love “In the Basement” because, in addition to being stunningly written, it shows how the art of lying — in other words, fiction — can serve to uncover deep human truths. Babel (1894-1940), who fell victim to Stalin’s Great Purge and for decades was “erased” from Soviet memory, produced fiction that is taut, complex and ambiguous, yielding rich meanings and interpretations that grow and develop over time with different readers. The idea that stories convey complex truths and give rise to multiple interpretations is central to my understanding not just of great literature but also of Jewish tradition.
These days, however, wherever I go, whatever I read and write, I am constantly thinking about truth, but not in my usual way. I am having trouble of late reading the line, “I was a boy who told lies. This came from reading,” with the same delight and abandon. During my recent Jewish literary tour of Ukraine, including a visit to Babel’s childhood Odessa neighborhood of Moldavanka, where many of his stories were set, I saw that today Babel has been “rehabilitated” and is acknowledged by a sidewalk star.
Yet I struggled over the fact that Bogdan Khmelnytzky, the Cossack leader who presided over the massacre of thousands of Jews in 1648, is lauded as a national hero and features prominently on the 5 hryvnia bill. The same man who is viewed by Jews as a villain is held up by Ukrainians as a nationalist hero! Can truth really be so utterly subjective and contingent?
Back at home, I’ve been struggling to understand how to reconcile my liberal convictions about the malleability of textual meaning and truth with my outrage at the daily assault on truth by our president. When honest reporting and fair criticism are continually dismissed as fake news, I find myself yearning and reaching for greater clarity and less ambiguity about the idea of Truth. True, the Talmud Tractate Eruvin 12b tells us of the teachings of Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel that “Eilu ve’eilu divrei Elohim hayim” — both of these are the living words of God. In the end, however, the law follows Beit Hillel. The world of Torah may allow for varying opinions, but a ruling must be made. And really there is no such thing as “alternative facts.”
With this in mind and with a deep desire to know the wisdom that Jewish tradition can offer us in these troubled times, my Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) colleague in Los Angeles, Joshua Garroway, and I organized HUC-JIR’s Symposium 2, “These Truths We Hold: Judaism in an Age of Truthiness,” a two-day weekend conference that took place last month at Steven Wise Temple in Los Angeles.
Our invited speakers examined truth from a variety of Jewish textual and disciplinary perspectives — biblical, rabbinic, liturgical, scientific and artistic. As Babel’s child narrator reflects, lies can indeed result from reading. Deep, thoughtful reading and teaching from some of the world’s leading Jewish scholars, we reasoned, might lead us in the direction of deeper understanding.
Among the highlights of the program was a session dedicated to “Torat Emet” (The Torah of Truth), featuring Professors Marc Brettler and Christine Hayes. Each prepared a packet of sources, the common denominator of which, quite frankly, was that both the Bible and the Talmud can be seen, if read suspiciously, as playing fast and loose with the truth.
In a presentation provocatively titled, “Is Deuteronomy Lying,” Brettler showed how the Book of Deuteronomy clearly changes fundamental tenets from the Book of Exodus, adding and subtracting elements, in some cases, overturning prior law and theological statement. For example, Exodus 21 instructs the owner of a Hebrew slave to set that slave free after six years without payment. In contrast, Deuteronomy 15:12 declares the slave not be sent away empty-handed, because “you were slaves in the Land of Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you.”
Is Deuteronomy, a supposed recap of previous commandments, lying about the original source, or offering a needed update, a morally improved slavery law 2.0? What is the relationship, we wondered between goodness and truth?
Hayes pushed these questions further in her presentation entitled “The Truth About Torah.” According to Hayes, the notion of truth as an immutable, universal, ideal concept was Greek rather than Jewish. There were some ancient Jews like Philo who were enticed by the Greek ideal and strained to interpret the Torah as comporting with universal concepts. Most realized, however, that the Torah didn’t fit that paradigm.
In marked contrast to the Greeks, the rabbis upheld the idea of multiple truths that can be drawn upon selectively depending on the context. In tractate Niddah, for example, a woman comes to Rabbi Akiva with a blood stain of unknown origin, and R. Akiva shows an almost astonishing willingness — as reflected in the stunned reactions of his disciples — to ignore the most reasonable or likely explanation for the stain — menstruation — in favor of one that makes it possible for the woman to have relations with her husband. The value of marital intimacy is seen as taking precedence over empirical truth. And in Eruvin 12b, a source mentioned above, a heavenly voice declares that while the views of Beit Hillel and the views of Beit Shammai are both “the words of the living God,” the ruling goes according to Beit Hillel because “they were kindly and modest, they studied their own rulings as well as those of Beit Shammai, and were even so [humble] as to mention the actions of Beit Shammai before theirs.” Goodness proves more important in the case than being right. It is that commitment to goodness, Hayes argued, that guards the pluralism of biblical tradition from the dangers of relativism and mere spin.
As the organizers of the conference, however, we knew it would be important to address truth and pluralism not just from the point of view of classical Jewish text and academic discourse, but also from the vantage point of lived experience. For example, the session on Sefat Emet, “Fake News: Past, Present, and Future,” brought together Middle East expert David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and Dahlia Lithwick, a journalist who covers the Supreme Court for Slate as well as MSNBC.
From Lithwick we learned several facts about our “fake news” moment, including the increasing likelihood, due to technological innovation, that in the very near future it will be virtually impossible to distinguish between real and fake video, making it harder for anyone to debunk lies and propaganda when they are unleashed in the media. The Middle East does not often furnish cause for optimism, but Makovsky drew our attention to the truths about the Middle East that often don’t make the news, like the cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian security services and the Israelis and the Jordanians, even when the Israeli embassy was closed earlier this year in Amman. “Israel is the mistress of the Middle East,” Makovsky quipped, referring to the status of Israel among the Gulf states. “Everyone wants to be with us but not in public.”
And speaking of humor: what would a Jewish event be without true comic relief? I moderated a discussion with Asaf Beiser and Natalie Marcus, the co-creators of the award-winning Israeli comedy/satire show, “Hayehudim Ba’im,” which mines the textual and cultural history of the Jewish people since biblical times for laughs — as well as hard-hitting truths about issues of religious and contemporary political significance. Together we watched and discussed several skits including one on the absence in the Decalogue of a prohibition against rape, which speaks to our #MeToo moment, satirically targeting the enduring problems of sexual harassment and abuse.
For Beiser and Marcus, no strangers to controversy and criticism in their native Israel, being able to study and laugh with people deeply connected to Judaism and to pluralism too felt “like coming home,” they said. To be sure, the question of how our pluralism talk can practically impact a deeply polarized Jewish community both in Israel and in the diaspora, remained open and vexed. Clearly our work is not done. For my colleague Josh Garroway and me, the editing of a book based on the proceedings of the symposium awaits. In all truth, though, it felt like a good way to start.
Wendy Zierler is Sigmund Falk Professor of Modern Jewish Literature and Feminist Studies at HUC-JIR, New York, and author most recently of “Movies and Midrash: Popular Film and Jewish Religious Conversation,” finalist for a National Jewish Book Award (2017).