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The Murky Truth About Truth

The Murky Truth About Truth



Is the Torah the complete truth? I'm not asking if the Torah is completely true, in the sense that there's nothing untrue in it; but is it the complete truth, in the sense that no other source has anything true that's not in the Torah? Does the Torah contain all we need to know, and it's just a question of understanding/internalizing the information? Or is it possible that some other source of wisdom could have another part of the truth that would appear different but would actually be complementary and not be mutually exclusive? (I'm thinking of the parable of the blind men and the elephant, all with a complete and true understanding of their part of the elephant).

So, what do you think? Is the Torah a truth or the truth?


This is one of those questions that really gets to the bottom of things. You can tell when you're getting to the bottom of things because it's usually pretty murky down there. And in this case I've already dug up some murk for you:

On the one hand, I can cite you the unequivocal, got-a-problem-with-that? statements like, "The Torah of G‑d is complete"1 or, "There isn't the smallest thing that is not alluded to in the Torah"2 or, "Every wisdom and every event that will ever happen are all included somehow in the Five Books of Moses."3 Including some heavy-duty exclusivity: "There is no truth other than Torah."4

Then, while you condemn me as a close-minded, ethnocentric chauvinist, I'll whip out a nice, liberal, universalistic statement of the Talmud: "If they tell you there is wisdom amongst the other nations, believe them. If they tell you there is Torah among the nations, don't believe them." (Midrash Rabbah, Eichah 17)

But then you've caught me: The Talmud is saying that there is wisdom that is not Torah. But we just said that Torah is the exclusive truth! So if Torah has exclusive rights on truth, what type of wisdom is there that is not truth?

Maimonides took that last statement of the Talmud quite practically. Concerning studying astronomy from the writings of idolatrous Greeks, he writes, "Accept the truth from wherever it comes."5

Okay, so he qualifies himself by saying that this wisdom was originally among the Tribe of Issachar but was lost from the Jews, so now we have to restore it by learning from the Greeks. So too, others write about all the sciences we have learned from Greeks, Persians and whoever else — that they all originated from Abraham and later Solomon, but were then lost, only for us to regain it from other nations.

Nevertheless, what does that say for the exclusive, comprehensive claim of Torah over Truth? If "Torah is complete" and there is "no truth other than Torah" then why does Maimonides need to study Ptolemy (and Aristotle and Galen and Averroes)?

Would the Real Truth Please Stand Up

While you're busy answering that one, I'll throw another, bigger wrench in the works: How many truths are there?

You know what they say, "Put two Jews together and you'll have three opinions." Well, it didn't start yesterday. There's hardly an issue in Torah that doesn't come bundled with debate — and the sides often take extreme poles. We're not just talking about which shoelace to tie first (actually, that's something they wondrously agree upon). We're talking about debates like those of the schools of Hillel and Shammai: Which came first, heaven or earth?6 Is it better for man to be created or are we the losers in this game?7

This is not about academic hair-splitting and fairies dancing on needles — these are serious issues that concern the nitty-gritty of daily life. Look into what's behind all these arguments, and you'll find a common theme: "Should we be idealists or pragmatists?" Now if you still can't make up your mind on an issue like that, how do you set claim to exclusive, comprehensive rights to Truth?

The idealist/pragmatist debate leaves a long, unbroken trail through the battlefields of Torah, from Moses to Solomon to the Talmud to Maimonides to the Kabbalists to the present day: Is asceticism a good path or does G‑d want us to enjoy His world? Which takes priority, study or good deeds? Who is higher, the pure, untainted tzaddik or the penitent sinner? How do we receive the ultimate reward, as a soul without a body, or as a soul within a body?

There are even more fundamental issues that come under contention — such as, what are the basic principles of Jewish Faith? Maimonides counts thirteen. Rabbi Yosef Albo in his Sefer Ha-Ikrim argues that there are really only three. Others say the whole notion of counting principles is untenable.

Maimonides, for example, counts belief that G‑d is non-corporeal as a basic principle. In his Mishnah Torah, he writes that one who believes that G‑d has a body forfeits his portion in the world to come. Rabbi Abraham ibn David ("The Raavad") attacks his statement, saying that many Jews who are better than him — Maimonides --(!) read the scriptures and naively understood that G‑d has a body. So we write something, you read it and take it literally and then we boot you out of the party — and this is fair?

True, nobody is arguing whether G‑d has a body or not. Neither are they arguing over the veracity of anything else that Maimonides chooses to label as principles. Just that one says Judaism is this, the other says, no, it's this and another says it's none of the above. But the fact that there can be contention over the very definition of Jewish belief is nothing less than stunning. If we can't define our belief system, how do we lay claim to "The Truth"?

I'll throw you another one: Some Kabbalists write that our Torah teaches that G‑d created an "empty space" within His Being in which to create the world — meaning that He is not here in our world. Others insist that this constriction (tzimtzum) is not a literal one, but a one-sided mirror in which the world perceives itself as inhabiting a space devoid of G‑d, but in truth, "the entire existence is filled with His presence" and "there is no place void of Him." However the dialectics work out, whether G‑d is here or not seems pretty fundamental to me.

So let's say we could go back to those sages of the Talmud who reveled in this atmosphere of debate and proliferation of opinions and ask them the burning question: How do you reckon this attitude with Torah being The Truth? Shouldn't The Truth speak with authority, with certitude and sterilized of all ambiguities?

Here, finally, there's a consensus — and it is a resounding "No!"

In the words of the voice from heaven, heard by the students of Hillel and Shammai after several years of one of their most heated debates: "Both are the words of the Living G‑d."8 A little more poetically, in the words of Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah,

...these are the students of the sages who sit in groups occupied in Torah. These declare something impure and these declare it pure. These forbid and these permit. These declare something kosher and these declare it unfit. Perhaps a person will say, "If so, how can I study Torah?" This is what we were taught: All were given by a single shepherd [i.e. Moses]. One G‑d gave them, one leader spoke them from the mouth of the Master of All Things, blessed be He. As it is written, "And G‑d spoke all these things, saying..." You, too, should make your ear like a grinder and acquire an understanding heart to hear the words of all these opinions.9

Which means we can't even ask G‑d for the truth. In fact, the Talmud tells us, when the ministering angels come to G‑d to ask when is the Festival of the New Moon, He tells them, "Why do you ask me? Let us go to the earthly court of the sages and ask them what they've decided."10

And what, then, of the issues they never managed to decide? Does this mean G‑d also cannot decide?

Rethinking Truth

So what is the definition of truth if even G‑d can't decide? How do we claim exclusive rights on The Truth when you can't even agree — G‑d can't even decide — what The Truth is?

Obviously, we have to rethink the idea of truth. Maybe there isn't an ultimate piece of information that is the ultimate truth (like in Douglas Adam's Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy where he is told that the ultimate truth is 46). Maybe truth isn't a fact at all. Maybe truth is more like a process.

So let's take a break for a nice story:

In 1921, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn of Lubavitch was subpoenaed by one of the government offices of the newly established Bolshevik regime in Rostov-on-Don. He was asked to clarify an issue: Does the Jewish religion support monarchism or communism? This was not exactly a pleasant tea with crackers—there was significant danger involved. In typical Schneersonian style, the rabbi determined that he would tell it as it is, leaving no room for ambiguity concerning his opinions.

So he told them the following story:

In one of my journeys to Petersburg — this was in the winter of 1913 — I traveled in a second class coach and my travel companions were government employees and spiritualist Christian clergy.

In that year, Russia was celebrating the 300th anniversary of the rule of the family Romanov. My fellow travelers were involved in a heated discussion concerning monarchy in general. The central question was: How does our holy Torah relate to monarchism?

Some said that the Bible supported monarchism. Others argued that the Bible was socialist. One argued that the Bible is clearly communist.

At first, I took no part in that discussion. But then there entered some Jewish friends, good acquaintances of mine, and they insisted that I state my opinion.

So I said as follows: All of you with all your various opinions, all of you are correct. Every party — monarchism, socialism, communism — all have pros and cons. It is a well-known principle of philosophy that there is nothing good without bad and there is nothing bad without good. In every good thing you will find some bad mixed in and in everything bad you will find some good.

But this axiom is only true with man-made ideas. The holy Torah, however, which the Creator of the world, blessed be He, has given us, comprises only the positive aspects of every idea. Therefore, each one of you finds in our holy Torah only the positive aspects of your party.11

The Rebbe (meaning Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, son-in-law and heir to Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak) referred once to this story and added: But this still is only the wisdom of Torah. It is not the essence of Torah.12

What is the essence of Torah? The essence of Torah, the Rebbe explained on many occasions,13 is Halachah — the power to decide what G‑d wants us to do here and now.

In other words, as long as you are in the realm of wisdom, all wisdom is relative. Intellect, by its very makeup, cannot determine absolute truth. If wisdom leaves no room for a differing opinion, you know it is no longer wisdom.

But Torah goes beyond wisdom. Torah is about right and wrong, good and bad — i.e. what G‑d wants us to do in His world and what He does not. Wisdom cannot determine any of that. Wisdom can only say, "If you do this, this is what will happen. If you want to achieve that, do this." Only Torah can tell you what it is that G‑d wants you to do and achieve. No other wisdom even lays claim to such a feat (other than those, of course, that base their authority on Torah).

And the amazing thing about Torah: That determination is made "down here," and not "up there."14 Halachah happens here on earth. In other words, G‑d invested His will in a human process.

The Un-Ideology

Rabbi Avraham Yitzchok Kook (one of the most significant Jewish mystics and thinkers of the 20th century) told it this way:15

How is it (I'm paraphrasing) that authors today attempt to define the soul of Judaism, saying, "Torah says like this; the ideology of Judaism is such-and-such"? There is no ideology of Judaism. Rather, Torah contains all the truths that are out there — including those that are at odds with one another.

"Everything is embraced in its soul," he writes, "it includes all spiritual inclinations, the open and the hidden, in a higher generalization, just as everything is included in the absolute reality of the divine. Every such definition in Judaism is heresy and is analogous to establishing an idol or a molten image to explain the character of G‑d."

And then Rabbi Kook compares Torah-versus-wisdom to the human versus animals. There are many animals, he writes, that surpass human beings even in intellectual tasks (try finding your way home from 500 miles away, orienting yourself in an aerial view, sewing a symmetrical web...). The advantage of human intellect is not necessarily in knowing but discerning. In other words, the ability to generate a plethora of varied perspectives, possibilities, hypotheses — and then analyze each one to determine which works best in this situation.

Whereas a spider weaves its web because that's what spiders do, a bear catches fish in whatever way he's used to (and eats them when he's hungry), a (real) human being sits back and reviews several possibilities, determines which one should work best for him and then grabs that. This is what Benjamin Bloom calls "evaluation" — and classes at the apex of his taxonomy of learning.

I'm not sure that animals don't do this at all — and that's not really Rabbi Kook's point. The point is that humans are in a whole other league in this matter. And so is Torah.

Anyone familiar with study of Torah knows that this is what it's all about. As soon as you begin learning the first line of Genesis, you are told that it can't be read with a single interpretation. It can't just mean that G‑d started creating the heavens and the earth out of nothing, because there are far more facile ways of saying that. In your first step of learning Torah you are introduced to conflict-knots to untie and signposts to interpret.

Torah learning is all about process rather than content — how to approach a problem, how to generate lots of perspectives, how to analyze and compare them, how to determine which one works best as a reading of the text, which works best as a practical application, which works best as an ethical lesson... it goes on and on literally without end.16

Torah is not about G‑d's ideas. Torah is about how G‑d thinks about those ideas — but using our human minds. But Torah is particularly about how we come to a final decision.

Being Truth

Now it becomes easy to see how a Torah that makes an exclusive claim to truth has no qualms about "taking the truth from whence it comes." The truth of Torah lies principally in its process of evaluation and discernment between ideas.17 If someone else has made a valuable study of those ideas, developing them further and bringing the issues out into the open — all the better. Now it's up to the Torah process to determine whether the axioms upon which this is based are acceptable or not, whether this is something G‑d wants in His world right now or not, how it should be used and for what.18

This is how Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi describes the truth of Torah in chapter five of Tanya: When the human mind is absorbed in comprehending that if Mr. Simon argues like this and Reuven inc. argues like that, then the halachah will be such and such — that is Torah and that is Truth. Not that he is learning about Truth. Rather, he is "thinking with G‑d's mind." He is being Truth. That state of being, that experience, that process, that itself is Truth.

So when — after a two hundred or so years — the halachah is determined to be according to Maimonides and not his detractors, that is Truth (note the capital T). That is, the act of us puny human beings, namely the Jewish people, determining what is the halachah, that is Truth.

Synergistic Torah

This is the explanation behind a very striking phenomenon: It's hard to think of an issue that's arisen, whether in science or politics or ideology, that we haven't found some reflection of in Torah. Now it makes sense: In order for the Torah to empower us to make decisions on every issue, all these ideas are found — at least in some abstract, primal state — within the Torah itself.

As an example, I'll end with another story:

In a private audience, the Rebbe once explained to a professor of chemistry that every idea of science can be found in the Torah. The professor was not impressed. So the Rebbe asked him, "What is your current research." It turns out he was investigating the synergy of chemical bonding. In short, that means that the strength of a chemical bond is greater than the sum of its parts.

So the Rebbe pulled a book off his shelf — a book containing responsum of Rabbi Sadia Gaon, a sage of the 10th century. He showed the professor a passage where Rabbi Sadia explained the prohibition of eating on Yom Kippur. If a person is not well enough to fast on Yom Kippur, he should try to eat in small portions, smaller than a date. Even if he will end up eating the equivalent of a large meal, this is a less serious violation of the fast, according to the Talmud, than eating that meal all at once.

Rabbi Sadia continues by explaining. "You see," he writes, "the whole is greater than the sum of its parts..."

The point of the story is not that we can abandon chemistry and just study Torah all day and we'll still have Teflon™ and Superglue™. The point is that we have another piece of evidence among many that Torah contains the kernel of every truth. But that is not the truth of Torah. The truth of Torah is how we can discern how these truths are to be used to fulfill the Divine Plan. And that can only be found in Torah.

Psalms 19
Zohar 3:221
Nachmanides, Introduction to the Torah
Jerusalem Talmud, Rosh Hashanah 3:5
Laws of the Sanctification of the New Moon 17:24; Preface to the "Eight Chapters" of introduction to Ethics of the Fathers.
Talmud, Tamid 32.
Talmud, Eruvin 13b.
Talmud, Eruvin 13b.
Talmud, Chagigah 3b.
Midrash Rabbah, Devarim 2:14
Igrot Kodesh vol. 4, p. 200 ff.
See "On the Essence of Chassidus", Kehot Publication Society, p. 29.
See, for example, Likutei Sichos 15, page 232; ibid 29, page 98; This is also a central subject of many of the Rebbe's hadranim on the Talmud and on Maimonides.
Concerning the Conflict of Opinions and Beliefs. The translation is from Abraham Isaac Kook, Paulist Press, page 271.
I suppose you could compare this to modern science and to mathematics. When an established scientific theory is disproved, it's not a blow to science, but a success. Science and math are not sets of facts, but rather approaches to creating cumulative sets of working principles. Only that Torah is comprehensive, including spheres of ethics and theology. Neither science nor math can tell you what to do with your life. Furthermore, Torah, as we explain here, reaches absolute conclusions. All truths of science are relative, since they rely on axioms that cannot be verified.
The rejection of this concept is what lies at the foundation of the Karaite heresy. The Karaites refused to acknowledge the divine authority of rabbinical decisions — in other words, they only perceived the Divine in the content of Torah, but not in its ongoing process.
The process itself is a lifelong study. Nevertheless it is worthwhile here to mention the basic steps involved in generating Halachah:

1) A halachah is determined by a judicial body universally accepted by those Jews who live according to halachah. This body is called the Sanhedrin and was dissolved shortly after the destruction of the Second Temple. Since then, universal halachah has been determined by universally accepted authorities, known for their fluency in Torah law and fear of heaven. Even then, their rulings are usually accepted only following a period of debate and refinement that could last years, even a century or more.

2) Any halachic ruling must be thoroughly grounded in precedent and the established forms of Talmudic analysis. Ruling by personal persuasion, divine prophecy or mystical experience does not count.

3) A ruling that is not accepted by the general community within a reasonable period of time is as though it was never made-regardless of how many sages of whatever caliber made that ruling. The opposite process also occurs: A custom universally accepted by the halachah-observing community also achieves the status of law.
Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, a senior editor at, also heads our Ask The Rabbi team. He is the author of Bringing Heaven Down to Earth. To subscribe to regular updates of Rabbi Freeman's writing, visit Freeman Files subscription. FaceBook @RabbiTzviFreeman Periscope @Tzvi_Freeman .
Illustration: Mosaic by Chassidic artist Michoel Muchnik.
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suzy handler woodland hills, ca. May 27, 2016


what inspires me the most is In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. I read that daily when studying other parts of the Torah and Talmud. Reply

Anonymous May 25, 2016

The Answer I know this is only a minor point of the article, but since it is about something as serious as The Ultimate Question of Life the Universe and Everything, I feel compelled to point out that the answer is 42, not 46. :)
(Look up Wikipedia on the number 42 and Hitchhikers Guide to the Galexy.)

I enjoyed the article. Thank you. Reply

Anonymous February 4, 2016

שלום לכם when one is 'turned on'
the (torah) תורה
is in their heart
the natural consequence
fear of יהוה Elohim
then comes wisdom
then chastisement
then understanding
then love Reply

Anonymous Between the Poles October 21, 2014

Can there be no truth of a factual matter? Does this mean that the observant or tzadic can sidestep the truth of an event? Is an event merely something that is more likely to have happened than not? If the truth of the event is at issue, can relationships of any kind speak to what may be the guide to reaching truth? Reply

suzy hander woodland hills, ca April 28, 2014

David, I love to read the lower level of the Torah. Someone has to and this inspires me.
Sometimes, God's literal words can be found in other parts of the Torah, as well as nature. You are very informed and this amazes me. Please keep writing as I learn so much from you. Reply

suzy hander woodland hills, ca April 28, 2014

Avigayil: The part of Genesis that inspires me the most is In the Beginning...I am a sci fi fiction writer, and study Hawking, etc. Yet even though I write one way, I believe in the Torah l00%. My protagonists believes in only nature but always comes out having doubts. Last night I went to ShoahService and was informed that when the millions went to the chambers, they were singing. How brave! Reply

Avigayil Boston, MA April 24, 2014

Genesis giving one confidence Hi Suzy.. I would really like to hear more about what parts of Genesis inspire you! Reply

David C. Vienna, VA April 24, 2014

Oral Torah Suzy,

The Oral Torah is not considered more important than the written, but it has the details not present in the written Torah. As you may or may not know, tradition teaches that Moses received the Oral Torah on Mt. Sinai at the same time he received the written Torah. It was passed from teacher to student orally for hundreds of years.

Today, we do not have that specific tradition. It was broken about 2000 years ago when Rome made it impossible to teach the Oral Torah properly. Fortunately, there were some great rabbis who committed it to writing, forming the text we now know as the Mishna. And the next generation of rabbis wrote down extensive discussion to explain the Mishna, forming what we know as the Gemara (both together comprising the Talmud.)

The Talmud and subsequent commentaries are not identical to the Oral Torah, but it is the closest thing we have today, and is what we use to properly understand the written Torah. Reply

Saul Dallas April 23, 2014

That's Paul Feuerabend. Reply

Ann Houston April 23, 2014

The New Atheism Perhaps you mean the atheism whose advocates cite Karl Popper?

You might find it helpful to familiarize yourself with Feuerabend, and in particular with his book, "Against Method," in which he demonstrates that the so-called "scientific method" is in fact NOT how science advances, historically. He brilliantly demonstrates the flaws in Popper's arguments.

It is always useful to have secular support from a noted and oft-published PhD whose books are famous. Or you might like to see what Wikipedia says about him.

. Reply

suzy hander woodland hills, ca April 23, 2014

David, thank you for your outstanding comments. I've missed you and the other writers since Passover. I read that the Oral Torah is more important than the Written Torah. The Oral Torah teaches us the issues that we are to live by in this generation. Of course, I'm just a fiction writer but loving kindness and good deeds mean more to me than isolating someone because they have broken the Commandments. Still, your inspirational facts mean a great deal to me. Reply

David C. Vienna, VA April 21, 2014

Anthology? Not quite Suzy,

I suppose you might consider the Torah (or more precisely, the Tanach - which comprises all of what the Christians call the "old testament") to be an anthology. Tradition teaches that the "Torah" part (Genesis through Deuteronomy) is the literal word of God (that is, the original Hebrew is, of course), as transcribed by Moses and copied by subsequent generation.

The books of the prophets (e.g. Joshua, Kings, etc.) and the scriptures (e.g. Esther, Chronicles, etc.) were written by human beings, but with Divine input (to various degrees.) They are considered holy books, but we don't derive Jewish law from them, because they are not God's literal words.

And of course, there are thousands of years of written and oral commentary on all of the above. These books are also considered sacred, but at a level lower than any of the books of the Tanach. Reply

suzy hander woodland hills, ca April 20, 2014

I love to study to Torah daily, whether parts are truth or not. Of course, all of the commentaries help me. Is the Torah an anthology? I cannot say. I know that the Torah has give me more confidence, especially Genesis. Reply

Avigayil Chana Boston, MA April 19, 2012

Hymie Hi Hymie,

My understanding, is that Truth is multi dimensional, and is found in PROCESS of discovery. The Rebbe always quoted, "These and these are the words of God." Meaning, opposing opinions are BOTH truth.

Here is an example.

In a way, on Yom Kippur, we stand before Gd with many sins on our record, and we need to work hard at prayer to seek His forgiveness.

In another way, we stand before Gd as His perfect children, and nothing we could ever do would make us look any less than perfect and beautiful in His eyes. As they say, "Sin? What sin?" Which is true? Both.

Another example.

To us, in this world, Gd seems to be hidden. He is invisible. Some people say He is absent. Other people say He does not even exist.

But to an angel looking down at us, Gd is everywhere in this world. They can see what we cannot. Which is true? Both.

I think that we find truth when we struggle to find it. Think of wisdom you have attained at something. You see both sides. Reply

Hymie April 18, 2012

Tough stuff, Tzvi. I can see that you understand it.

But despite all this explanation, and all the entertaining whimsy, I'm still not clear what truth is, and what Torah is. Is it an approach? Is it an attitude? Is it a way of determining what we should do here and now?

No wonder you feel you need to write an article. Please do so, and let us know where to read it. Reply

Avigayil Chana Boston, MA April 18, 2012

Truth is the Process I love this article. Thank you. Reply

Ron Garrett Morrisville, NC July 25, 2010

The New Anti-Theism "Perhaps I should write something with a perspective on the new anti-theism. There really is far less dissonance than is made out to be."

Please do. I would like to read your perspective on "the new anti-theism" i.e. what it is, what is new about it, where the assertions of dissonance are over-stated or simply misinformed. Reply

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman July 23, 2010

Re: The positive words of God? Levi, you raise very important issues. You need to be better informed. Judaism is not a top-down, authoritative tradition. The written word of the Torah is only one part of the equation. The interaction of the people with this text is vital to that tradition.

These are issues that we deal with in several articles. Here are a few you should look at:

On the process of interpretation
On slavery
On women and adaptation of tradition
On genocide
On authoritative text
On polygamy

There's more. I'm just hoping to create more dialog. Perhaps I should write something with a perspective on the new anti-theism. There really is far less dissonance than is made out to be. Reply

Levi Tribesman July 23, 2010

The positive words of God? Rabbi Schneerson says:
"The holy Torah comprises only the positive aspects of every idea."

What are the positive aspects of slavery? What is positive about the death of innocent people [ie. in Sodom & Gomorrah] and of those who curse their parents or work on the Sabbath etc. There are many other examples modern man finds morally abhorrant
(and illegal.)

Are these things the perfect word of God or has God changed his mind? Reply

Ron Garrett Raleigh, NC May 10, 2010

Murky Truth About Truth This article is definitely a keeper. I've always said I use all available facts in making my decision, but I use Torah to tell what my decision should be. Reply

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