Truth Spoken through the Humble Human Experience
A Person from Whom People Seek Instruction
In biblical Hebrew, the word “emet” is used sometimes to mean “truth” because it means “trustworthy.” Thus, when Malachi 2:6-7 speaks of a model priest of guarded lips from whom people seeks true Torah, תורת אמת, it speaks less of an ontological truth than of trustworthy [emet] instruction [torah].
Psalms 119 (vv. 97-100) tells us how to become a trusted person from whom others seek instruction:
מָה אָהַבְתִּי תוֹרָתֶךָ
כָּל הַיּוֹם הִיא שִׂיחָתִי.
כִּי לְעוֹלָם הִיא לִי.
מִכָּל מְלַמְּדַי הִשְׂכַּלְתִּי
כִּי עֵדְוֹתֶיךָ שִׂיחָה לִֿי.
כִּי פִקּוּדֶיךָ נָצָרְתִּי.
How I love Your teaching,
She is my conversation all day.
She makes me wiser than my enemies
[through] your commandments,
For to me she is everlasting.
From all my teachers I have learned intelligence,
Because I converse on your testimonies.
From elders I have learned prudence,
For I have guarded Your orders.
We become such persons by humbly reflecting with sages’ guidance on the ancient norms and living by them.
The Importance of Experience
This is a basic truth. New norms are sagacious only if we can estimate their positive outcome based on human experience with other cases. Principles and logical thinking cannot help. As Aristotle wrote:
[We must respect the] assertions and opinions of experienced and elderly people or of prudent men… for experience has given them an eye for things, and so they see correctly.
In Jewish terms, we learn from our hoary Torah tradition. As Bereshit Rabba records:
רבי חונייא בשם רבי אמר (מלאכי ב) תורת אמת היתה בפיהו אלו דברים ששמע מפי רבו.
R. Hunia taught in the name of Rebbi: “‘A true Torah was in his mouth’ means those matters that he heard from his teacher.”
Misreading the Meaning of the Torah
So why do moderns struggle with the Torah? One reason is because we misread experiential descriptions of creation and God as historical and ontological assertions.
Let us reflect for a moment on what lies behind the flood and creation stories. Nature can destroy with stormy flooding in which waters and land become intertwined. Eventually such storms abate, daylight shines through, clouds separate from the ocean, flooding recedes leaving new plants, the heavenly luminaries become visible, and life resumes in the calm waters. Produce, fish, fowl, and animals return in the land. We even contemplate how our mortal power mirrors the power that moves the world (Genesis 1:1-29). In some places, this is a recurrent cycle. In the Fertile Crescent, such flooding ceased to destroy civilization (Genesis 9:15). Is any of this false?
Are Some Biblical Laws Morally “False”?
The other reason we struggle is because we find some biblical laws morally false. Even if we err in the academic consensus of misreading biblical laws as if they were statutes intended to be read literally, how can good peoples’ attempts to address conflicting needs of empathetic compassion for all and protective or ethical interventionist warring be false? Humans, as mammals, will always both spare soldiers (Deuteronomy 20:10) and kill civilians (Deuteronomy 25:19). The Torah tries its best to establish a norm that was the most ethical balance possible under its conditions.
A norm can be false only if present technological and socio-economic conditions have made past inescapable evils now reasonably remediable, and yet we wickedly choose not to wisely reapply age-old insights. For example, it is false to allow slave ownership in contemporary times since current conditions both allow necessary production and the powerful to meet their greed without owned labor and allow laborers to thrive without a specific wealthy person investing in them and their children as assets.
Grounding Ourselves in Human Experience is not “False”
In short, speaking experientially of existence is “emet.” When we squabbling animals suffer worse under a drought, readopting hoary psychologically grounding and ethical norms is “emet.” As creatures who personify everything, appreciating, praising, or praying to Existence as God is “emet.” Baying, howling, or bleating like all creatures (Isaiah 43:20) is “emet.”
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September 8, 2015
August 29, 2023
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Dr. Rabbi Elisha Ancselovits teaches in The Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, Yeshivat Maale Gilboa, and Midreshet Ein Hanatziv. He holds a Ph.D. in Jewish Law from Liverpool Hope University, and rabbinic ordinations (Yoreh Yoreh and Yadin Yadin) from Yeshiva University. Among his articles are, “Embarrassment as a Means of Embracing Authorial Intent,” “The Prosbul, a Legal Fiction?,” and “Liberté, égalité, fraternité: The Biblical and Tannaitic Roots of the Different Medieval Customs Regarding Legumes on Passover” [Hebrew].
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