Truth and Truthiness

Kol Nidre 5779
Rabbi Gary M. Bretton-Granatoor

When I was a kid, the newspaper would be delivered to the door of our apartment in the late afternoon.  I vividly remember, grabbing it and lying on my belly in the carpeted foyer (pronounced with correct Yonkers accent) and reading – just reading.  It didn’t take long to pick up a certain bias, and even as a kid, I started to called Yonkers’ Herald Statesman, the Sterile Hates-man. Luckily, my grandfathers introduced me to the New York Times.  Sundays were blissful – in fact, I ignored most of my post bar mitzvah Hebrew school lessons by reading the Arts and Leisure section in the back of the classroom (until the rabbi had enough of that – but that’s another story).

I was enthralled by the words on the top left of the masthead “All the news that’s fit to print.” And if they deemed it fit to print, I needed to read the news. There is an interesting story behind those somewhat ambiguous and vainglorious seven words.  At several points in the past 115 years, there have been attempts to come up with a catchier motto, but nothing ever caught on.

What exactly prompted publisher Adolf Ochs to move “All the news that’s fit to print” to the front page 115 years ago is not entirely clear. The two newspaper owners credited with developing the journalistic style of yellow journalism, which was known for a lurid, sensationalist and often inaccurate reporting of facts and opinions,were William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer. These two were fighting a circulation battle in New York City. Pulitzer owned the New York World, and Hearst the New York Journal.

“All the news that’s fit to print” was a challenge to the yellow press, a challenge that Ochs ultimately won. The New York Times has long outlived the New York newspapers of Hearst and Pulitzer.

In 2005, the word “truthiness” entered our lexicon – though the editor of the Oxford English Dictionary suggested that it appeared much earlier, the modern iteration owes its genesis to Stephen Colbert. Truthiness was named Word of the Year for 2005 by the American Dialect Society and for 2006 by Merriam-Webster.

While I grew up getting my news from the Grey Lady, as the New York Times was known, and Huntley-Brinkley, and Walter Cronkite, my kids got their news from Jon Stewart, and his television “arch-rival”, Stephen Colbert.

Stephen Colbert, portraying his character Dr. Stephen T. Colbert, chose the word truthiness just moments before taping the premiere episode of The Colbert Report on October 17, 2005, after deciding that the originally scripted word – “truth” – was not absolutely ridiculous enough: “We’re not talking about truth, we’re talking about something that seems like truth – the truth we want to exist”, he explained. He introduced his definition in the first segment of the episode, saying: “Now I’m sure some of the ‘word police’, the ‘wordinistas’ over at Webster’s are gonna say, ‘Hey, that’s not a word’. Well, anybody who knows me knows I’m no fan of dictionaries or reference books. They’re elitist. Constantly telling us what is or isn’t true. Or what did or didn’t happen.”

When asked in an out-of-character interview with The Onion’s A.V. Club for his views on “the ‘truthiness’ imbroglio that’s tearing our country apart”, Colbert elaborated on the critique he intended to convey with the word: “…It used to be, everyone was entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts. But that’s not the case anymore. Facts matter not at all. Perception is everything. It’s certainty.

…I really feel a dichotomy in the American populace. What is important? What you want to be true, or what is true? …Truthiness is ‘What I say is right, and [nothing] anyone else says could possibly be true.’ It’s not only that I feel it to be true, but that I feel it to be true. There’s not only an emotional quality, but there’s a selfish quality.”

Our world is flooded with “truthiness” but rather little “truth” these days – so what is “truth” and how do we determine that which is true?

Harvard Professor of the History of Science, Dr. Naomi Oreskes, suggests that truth is determined by consensus. In 2004, she published an article “Beyond the Ivory Tower: The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change.” Examining 928 scientific abstracts published between 1993 and 2003 – 75% either explicitly or implicitly backed the consensus view that Earth’s climate is being affected by human activities. This article led to publication, with Erik Conway, of a larger opus in 2010, which stated that the climate change debate follows earlier controversies over tobacco smoking, acid rain and the hole in the ozone layer – contrarian scientists joined forces with conservative think tanks and private corporations to challenge the scientific community. Thus, what the consensus of the scientific community determined to be “true” was challenged by a well-funded vocal minority, introducing doubt into the conversation, and sparking debate.

The use of consensus to determine that which is true is well-established – in fact, rabbinic reasoning as evinced throughout the Talmud, shows that there is no Jewish hierarchical structure in determining “truth.” One cannot ever find a single monolithic legal ruling in the Talmud.  It is always reported that the majority adhere to one “truth” arrived at through consensus.  But, the Talmud always records the minority views, and even marginal interpretations, yet stating that the law – the truth — goes with majority.

Perhaps the most demonstrative example is found in the debate over the nature of an oven, found in Sanhedrin 59a-b (some of you may have already heard me describe this story).  The story is often referred to as “The Oven of Ahknai.”

A new way of constructing an oven is brought before the Sanhedrin and the rabbis debate whether or not this oven is susceptible to ritual impurity. Rabbi Eliezer ben Hurcanus argues that the oven is ritually pure while the other rabbis, including the nasi (the head of the Sanhedrin) Rabban Gamaliel, argue that the oven is impure. When none of Rabbi Eliezer’s arguments convince his colleagues, he cries out, “If the halakha is in accordance with my opinion, this carob tree will prove it.” At this point, the carob tree leaps from the ground and moves far away. The other rabbis explain that a carob tree offers no proof in a debate over law. Rabbi Eliezer cries out, “If the halakha is in accordance with my opinion, the stream will prove it.” The stream begins to flow backwards, but again the other rabbis point out that one does not cite a stream as proof in matters of law. Rabbi Eliezer cries out, “If the halakha is in accordance with my opinion, the walls of the study hall will prove it.” The walls of the study hall begin to fall, but are then scolded by Rabbi Joshua ben Hananiah who reprimands the walls for interfering in a debate among scholars. Out of respect for Rabbi Joshua, they do not continue to fall, but out of respect for Rabbi Eliezer, they do not return to their original places.

In frustration, Rabbi Eliezer finally cries out, “If the halakha is in accordance with my opinion, Heaven will prove it.” A Bat Kol, a voice from heaven, booms out, “Why are you differing with Rabbi Eliezer, as the halakha is in accordance with his opinion in every place that he expresses an opinion?” Rabbi Joshua responds, “It [the Torah] is not in heaven” (Deuteronomy 30:12). He responds in this way because the Torah, which was given by God to humanity at Sinai, specifically instructs those who follow it that they are to look to the received Torah as their source and guide. As we will read tomorrow for our Yom Kippur Torah reading, the text says, “It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?’ No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe” (Deuteronomy 30:12-14).

Rabbi Joshua’s response then expresses the view that the work of law is a work of human activity, and that the Torah itself supports this legal theory. The Torah is not a document of mystery which must have its innate meaning revealed by a minority, but it is instead a document from which law must be created through the human activity of debate and consensus. Rabbinic literature was capable of recognizing differing opinions as having a degree of legitimacy (Yer. Ber. 3b), yet the community remains united and the ruling which is ultimately followed comes through proper jurisprudence. Rabbi Eliezer’s miraculous appeals – even with the weight of a heavenly voice – could not convince the majority that his law was true. Instead the Jewish community followed the ruling of the majority. The Talmud asks how God responded to this incident. We are told that upon hearing Rabbi Joshua’s response, God cried out, “My children have triumphed over Me; My children have triumphed over Me.”

The media went crazy a month ago, when my least favorite New York City Mayor (as a real New Yorker, I am allowed to rank all manner of things “New York”), Rudi Giuliani, uttered these three words: “Truth isn’t truth.” (August 20 on Meet the Press).  In this toxic media environment, he made “truthiness” the synonym of “truth.”  He exposed the now all too common notion that in our day, ‘truth’ is subjective – it depends on what I feel, what I think. But what we need to do to combat this undulating, loosey-goosey, confusion of ‘facts’ with what we want these ‘facts’ to mean, is to reintroduce objectivity into the equation of determining that which is true.  And as we learn from the scientific community, as well as our own Jewish antecedents, is that objectivity’s checks and balances come from the agreement of the preponderance of the observers – truth is determined by consensus – a consensus of the majority.

Responding to Giuliani’s three famous words, on Twitter, James Comey observed: “Truth exists and truth matters. Truth has always been the touchstone of our country’s justice system and political life. People who lie are held accountable. If we are untethered to the truth, our justice system cannot function, and a society based on the rule of law dissolves.”

In this diverse, yet democratic society in which we live, we have long abided by the notion that “the majority rules.” The principle finds analogue in our own Jewish tradition.  So in the days that lie ahead, as divergent voices grow louder and louder, we must sift though the noise, and build consensus for what we deem is true and right. The truth is in our hands, not to mold to our whim, but to find others who will place their hands in ours and uphold what we deem to be right.

Kayn yehee ratzon.  Be this God’s will.

Gmar Chatima Tova – May we all be inscribed in the Book of Life, for good.

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