At the end of this month is Tisha B’Av, the fast day which commemorates the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem. These Temples may seem to us today like distant, historical edifices. What’s the big deal about old buildings? But for the Jews of the ancient world they were far more than buildings. For the Jews of the time, the Temple was visible proof that God was still dwelling among us, blessing us.
What does it mean to say God is dwelling among us? The closest that I can say is that if we are living together with respect, peace, and justice, we can say with confidence that God is somehow present among us. If we create a society full of neglect, hatred, and injustice we can be sure that God’s presence and blessing have been exiled.
This is the way that the ancient Sages understood the destruction of the Second Temple at the hands of the Romans in 70 C.E. They said simply that the Temple was destroyed because of senseless hatred. It is historically true that in the period before the Romans defeated the Judeans there were many factions in Jewish society: there were Essenes, Pharisees, Sadducees, followers of Jesus, Gnostics, farmers and city dwellers, and more. They all had their ideas and interests, and apparently they argued in a way that weakened the society, sowed disrespect and hatred.
In response, the Rabbis who emerged after the destruction of the Temple, those Sages who created the Judaism that we know, placed special emphasis on the idea that argument can be respectful; that difference can be a strength, not a weakness. This is not an easy thing to accomplish, and, as we can all attest, it’s a work in progress. Yet it is central to Jewish life. We are a people who know the power of words, and the necessity of argument (two Jews = three opinions!)
One of the most important elements the rabbis employed in making sure that argument remains respectful is the idea that no one, no matter how smart, has the “Truth with a capital T.” This is a surprising and even counterintuitive claim, when we consider that these were deeply religious people who believed that they possessed in the Torah the true revelation of God. Yet the rabbis of the Talmud held firmly to this idea.
The rabbis of antiquity expressed their ideas in stories, homilies, imaginative interpretations of scripture called Midrash. One of these Midrashim (plural of midrash) that goes to the core of the idea that we cannot possess the “Truth with a Capital T” goes like this:
Rabbi Simon said, At the time that God came to create the first human the ministering angels formed themselves into two groups: one said, “Create!” and the other said, “Don’t create!” as it is written, (Psalms 85:11) Kindness and Truth met; Justice and Peace kissed. Kindness said, “Create him, because he does much kindness.” Truth said, “Don’t create him because he is full of lies.” Justice said, “Create him, for he acts justly.” Peace said, “Don’t create him, since he’s full of argument.” What did God do? God took Truth and threw it to the earth. As it is written, (Daniel 8:12) “And he threw truth to the earth.” The angels said to God, Master of the Universe, Why are you insulting your royal stamp (Truth)? Raise Truth up from the earth! As it is written, “Truth will sprout from the earth.” (Psalms 85:12)
Midrash Beraisheet Rabba 1:8
In this midrash the rabbis are saying that “Truth” cannot be up in heaven if we want to exist as humans. Human society cannot stand up to a Truth that sits in judgment in an objective, heavenly perspective. We are not built that way. We can imagine a Truth that lives in Heaven, even yearn for a Truth with a capital T. But, the midrash says, that truth will hold us back, argue against our very existence.
As in the days of the ancient Temple, we in our modern times are also in danger of thinking we have the Truth with a capital T. Whether in our political opinions, or in the power and control of our technology, we too often come to the arrogant conclusion that we can know the complete truth and act on it. This, we are seeing, is weakening our society and our planet. It leads to senseless hatred and threatens our very existence. It is certainly driving God’s presence and blessing from our midst.
I like to compare this midrash with a modern story told by David Brower, one of the most important and radical founders of the modern environmental movement. His favorite story goes like this: A member of the Cree tribe was brought into a court to testify in a case involving the damming of a river and the flooding of his land. This man, who may never have been in a building before, much less a courtroom, was asked to swear to tell the Truth, the Whole Truth and nothing but the Truth. He replied that he could not make such an oath to tell the Whole Truth. As a human being all he could possibly do was tell what he knew.
The Cree tribesman, the environmentalist and the ancient Jewish Sages agree: we need to acknowledge our differences, even argue strongly for our opinions – but have a little humility, understand that my opinion isn’t the Truth with a capital T. Truth, if it can be found at all in our world, sprouts from the earth. When we acknowledge that, we have a chance to build a society filled with respect, good will and justice; a society filled with God’s presence and blessing.