Truth Must Be Ascertainable
אורייתא דקושטא – A Torah of Truth
There are two possible ways of translating the phrase torat emet that originates from Malachi 2:6 and is central to one of the birkhot ha-torah: either “a true Torah” or “a Torah of truth.” Leaving aside their respective grammatical merits, I would like to opt for the second – which happens to sit quite comfortably with the Targum’s אורייתא דקושטא.
“Torah of truth” implies that truth exists as something in its own right; and that is exactly the Torah’s own conception of emet, truth. Take for example, the following verses:
דברים יג:טז וְדָרַשְׁתָּ וְחָקַרְתָּ וְשָׁאַלְתָּ הֵיטֵב וְהִנֵּה אֱמֶת נָכוֹן הַדָּבָר….
Deut 13:15 You shall enquire and search and interrogate thoroughly and behold if it is true, the fact is established….
דברים יז:ד וְהֻגַּד לְךָ וְשָׁמָעְתָּ וְדָרַשְׁתָּ הֵיטֵב וְהִנֵּה אֱמֶת נָכוֹן הַדָּבָר….
Deut 17:4 Then you shall make thorough enquiry and behold if it is true, the fact is established….
דברים כב:כ וְאִם אֱמֶת הָיָה הַדָּבָר הַזֶּה….
Deut 22:20 If it proves to be true….
In these scriptures, the Torah assumes that emet can be ascertained by means of human striving and, moreover, that humans are endowed with the capacity to distinguish emet from sheker (falsehood). These verses are definitional, allowing for the equation emet=empirical truth (also referred to by philosophers as correspondence, or representative, truth).
If this interpretation of torat emet seems minimalist, I still believe it to be primary – if only by virtue of its affirmation by the texts themselves.
The Problem with the Translation: “A True Torah”
Admittedly, some prefer the alternative translation of torat emet, namely “a true torah.” In turn, the phrase is then often construed to be making a claim as to the factuality of information incorporated in the torah. But what happens then when any of that information conflicts with empirical truth or with the proven findings of science?
In some quarters the scientific findings are impugned on the grounds that humans are unreliable or even that they are incapable of knowing what is true. However, in that case calling torah – or for that matter anything else – emet becomes meaningless, unless emet is stripped of its attested meaning and made to stand for “approved” or “worthy of allegiance” and the like. None of this latter-day apologetics is supported by Jewish tradition.
The Rabbis’ Support for the “Torah of Truth” Conception
The rabbis maintain scripture’s idea of emet. Indeed, upon it rests their entire justice system and the aggadah too is informed by it. At b. Sotah 9b the Talmud declares,
ניכרין דברי אמת.
Words of truth are recognizable.
A more exalted declaration occurs at b. Yoma 69b with respect to the rabbanan, the rabbis who changed the nosach ha-tefillah, the ancient prayer language,
מתוך שיודעין בהקדוש ברוך הוא שאמתי הוא, לפיכך לא כיזבו בו.
knowing that God is true [or favors truth] they could not speak lies to Him.
Of course, this last text introduces the very essence of our faith – God’s truth – which for a Jew precedes all other truth. But that is a subject for another day.
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September 7, 2015
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Dr. Hacham Isaac S. D. Sassoon is a rabbi and educator and a founding member of the ITJ. He studied under his father, Rabbi Solomon Sassoon, Hacham Yosef Doury, Gateshead Yeshivah and received his semicha from the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. He holds a Ph.D. in literature from the University of Lisbon. He is the author of The Status of Women in Jewish Tradition (Cambridge University Press 2011), a commentary on chumash An Adventure in Torah: A Fresh Look Through a Traditional Lens (KTAV 2023), and most recently the co-editor with Rabbi Steven H. Golden of the Siddur 'Alats Libbi (Ktav 2023).
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