The Truth—and Nothing but the Truth

Posted on May 23, 2019

Commencement Address 2019

It’s a particular pleasure for me to address our graduates this year, the 50th since my high school commencement ceremony. I confess I remember absolutely nothing of that day and am not sure that you or your families will remember very much about this ceremony, years from now. But I am quite certain you will remember the tumultuous time we are all living through: the special anxiety that attaches to being a citizen of the United States these days, or a steward of planet Earth, or—not the least cause of concern in 2019—a Jew, who must now worry about resurgent anti-Semitism and routinely has to pass through metal detectors or perhaps armed guards in order to set foot in a synagogue or other Jewish institution.   

My high school years are memorable for what was taking place outside classroom walls in America in the late 1960s: anti-war protests, of course; race riots in the streets of major cities from coast to coast; and, in the spring of my junior year, the back-to-back assassinations of two leaders whom I greatly admired. I remember the fear my family felt in the days leading up to the Six Day War in 1967, and dismay at watching the chaos surrounding the 1968 Democratic convention on TV. You can probably tell me—as some of you have in recent weeks—how your sense of at-homeness in America, your confidence in the rule of law, your view of Jewish history and destiny, and perhaps your personal career plans and life-vision, have changed thanks to the onslaught of troubling events that have occurred during your time at JTS. Most recently, there were the shootings at Tree of Life Congregation last October, at the New Zealand mosque in March, and several weeks ago at the shul in San Diego—all these on top of the neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville in the summer of 2017 and the attack upon the AME Church in Charleston two years before. We are all made somewhat anxious—or positively alarmed—about what global warming has in store for the world in coming decades, about the prospect of autonomous vehicles on streets and highways, and about what AI and genome-editing portend. And then there are the non-stop controversies that have riveted, energized, and polarized our country of late.

These are not normal times. We seem to be living through a challenge to American democracy, and a concurrent spike in anti-Semitism and other forms of overt prejudice and racism, that I never expected to see in my lifetime. I believe that we are also witness to an overturning of fundamental values, Jewish and American, that I thought until recently were widely shared. I now understand that these commitments are not only up for grabs in our country but are actually under siege.

Among the most important of those once-sacrosanct values is the commitment to truth. Institutions of higher education like JTS cannot function without that commitment. Science, history, and every other academic discipline I can think of presume it axiomatically. Telling and seeking the truth has always been a central value of Judaism, and not only Judaism. The well-being of religious and ethnic minorities like the Jews particularly depends upon devotion to getting the facts right, lest those who wield might hold unchallenged sway over the depiction of how things are and should be.

It is troubling, therefore, that according to a recent report by the Rand Corporation think tank, there is a growing and pervasive blurring of boundaries between fact and opinion in American society and culture today, especially in the domains of government and media. The study is cleverly titled “Truth Decay.” Sitting in the dentist’s chair last week, getting a cavity drilled and filled, the full force and pain of that pun, and the danger of ignoring the phenomenon to which it points, were made utterly clear to me. 

Open even a reputable newspaper these days and it is distressingly obvious that the expression of opinion and values is not limited to the editorial and op-ed pages. Flip the channels for cable news, and it is equally obvious that you are being told only what someone thinks you want to hear.  

Search for a politician who will publicly admit that his or her party might be mistaken in its positions or policies, or that the leaders of other parties might have right or good sense on their side, and you generally search in vain. Listen to senior government officials minimize or deny the facts of global warming and climate change, and you realize that science, too, is now being undermined, even mocked, in the service of politics and ideology.

Listen to the anti-Semitic narrative of worldwide Jewish domination, or white nationalist lies about the dangers posed by immigrants and people of color, or alleged histories of Middle East conflict that distort or deny facts that many of us have lived through or witnessed with our own eyes, and you understand viscerally why we must never stop insisting on the value of facts or allow them to be replaced by mere opinion.

According to the Rand study, that is happening more and more in American society, culture and government. “Trends of truth decay” have contributed to “lack of trust across the board.” The report reminded me of a pun that my father, who never met a pun he didn’t like, often made on the Yiddish word for “the truth,” the emes. “The world is a mess,” my father would say as he put down the newspaper, “and that’s the truth.”

My parents instilled a deep appreciation of both America and of Judaism, and inculcated repulsion and disgust in the face of lying and deceit that have stayed with me to this day. Stories about students who cheated, or politicians who lied, were met with disdain in my house. I can only imagine my parents’ reaction to the discovery earlier this spring that numerous parents had secured admission for their children to prestigious American universities by falsifying applications and bribing athletic coaches. I was taught never to trust a friend who lied to others and was instructed to be a friend who could always be trusted, no matter what. At school we memorized the morality tale of the young George Washington, who said as he confessed to chopping down a cherry tree that he “cannot tell a lie.” This virtue was reinforced weekly at my synagogue, where the rabbi intoned words before the open ark that made such an impression on me that I can recite them from memory to this day: “Not in men do we put our trust, or upon angels do we rely, but upon the God of heaven, who is the God of truth,  whose Torah is truth, and whose prophets are prophets of truth, and who aboundeth in deeds of goodness and truth” (Zohar Vayakhel).

I also learned at a young age that for human beings, truth is no simple matter. Beliefs once held to be true—whether by scientists, historians, philosophers, or rabbis—were now known to be false. I was disabused as a teenager of literal belief in “Torah from Sinai.” The truth of Torah, I was taught, did not include scientific claims about creation of the world in six days or historical claims about the march of several million Israelites through the wilderness, weighed down with enough silver, gold, wood planks, and dolphin skins to construct the tabernacle. The truth of Torah, as I was taught Torah, lay rather in the moral and religious imperatives embodied in the mitzvot—including the injunction to cleave to truth in personal relations, business dealings, and social policy. It included, as well, the blessing to be had from heeding the call to serve God to the best of our abilities, as proud members of a people that had tried to do this for many centuries.   

I drew on that lesson several years ago, when, after a lecture at a synagogue in Baltimore on the commitment of Conservative Judaism to “tradition and change,” a teenager sitting in the back row posed a question that has haunted me ever since. “But Professor Eisen,” he asked, “what is true?” I decided on the spot that I could not do better than Moses’ final summing up at the conclusion of Deuteronomy, a passage that Maimonides cites prominently in the Laws of Repentance of the Mishneh Torah. A Jewish human being can and should choose life, choose blessing, and choose the good, guided in large part by the Torah and the life that it makes possible. It is in our power to make such choices despite all that determines and constrains us. We are forbidden to slough off the responsibility for choosing—and are obligated to acquire the knowledge of facts that is required to choose wisely.

One can’t prove in 2019 that those commitments are correct, or that the world will be better because of them. Every young person knows, before going very far in school or in life, that even the simplest matters of fact are hard to get right. We all soon learn as well that the capital-T truths that make life ultimately meaningful can be rationally defended only up to a point and are not given to empirical confirmation. All one can do is testify—as I do now, chancellor to graduating class—to the immense meaning that will be yours if you face up to the moral and intellectual complexities of small-t and capital-T truth-telling and do your best to get them right.

I suspect, as the Rand study suggests, that this task is more difficult now than it was only several decades ago. Truth decay is more advanced and widespread in our culture; suspicion of every authority or claim to truth is virtually automatic; it often seems naïve to trust in anyone or anything. But I believe it will be the case for you, as it has been for me, that many of the choices you make in life—your friends,  your partners in love, your careers, your faith—will be shaped by your determination, despite and because of the tumult of the times, to use the abilities you possess and the knowledge you acquire to respect rather than scorn “deeds of goodness and truth.” The future of higher education depends on it. Judaism depends on it. And the well-being of Jews and other minorities, and therefore of America, depends on it as well.

Let me take each of those areas where truth greatly matters in turn, humbled by the fact that I do so in the presence of four honorary degree recipients who have written about and exemplified “the passion for truth.” Martha Nussbaum has cogently defended what she called “the recently despised notions of truth, objectivity, even of validity in argument, clarity in definition.” Sara Bloomfield has devoted her career to making sure the Holocaust is remembered and taught accurately.  David Golinkin has written a lovely piece about classical Jewish sources on the importance of the search for truth and the association of truth with the name of God. And Bruce Beutler has resolutely sought elusive facts in the lab for many years and chided colleagues who enjoy being right so much that they fail to give up hypotheses that stand in the way of truth. 

My own life as a scholar, as my students and colleagues well know, has been shaped from the start by Max Weber’s declaration, in his great essay “Science [or Scholarship] as a Vocation,” that one could not be a person of faith without sacrifice of intellectual integrity, and certainly could not study religion objectively if one held religious beliefs. JTS is founded upon, and committed to, the opposite view. So is my own career. I believe that the study by List College students at JTS of Talmud, Bible, Jewish history, or great Jewish thinkers requires just as much rigor, devotion to detail, and commitment to truth as are demanded of you up the street in biology or history classes at Barnard and Columbia. The same holds true for the work of every graduate student in the Kekst School. We do the tradition we love and study no favor if we do not hold it up to the very highest standards of evidence and argument.

On this matter I do stand with Weber: every teacher, he wrote, has a duty to teach her students “to recognize ‘inconvenient’ facts—I mean facts that are inconvenient for their party opinions.” This is not merely an intellectual task, Weber added, but a moral achievement.  That stance bears directly on how graduates of the Davidson School, my fellow teachers, will engage in the practice of Jewish education, and how the graduates joining the clergy today find the precious balance between “afflicting the comfortable” and “comforting the afflicted.”  Your vocation, like that of science, depends on the pursuit of complex and elusive truth. Getting the facts right is essential to doing right in the world. Absolutely everything is at stake in this effort.

Why do we care so much about Holocaust denial, or get so upset when people seem content to forget the Nazis’ crimes or are careless about the facts of Holocaust history? In part, I think, we want our dead to be remembered; allowing their memory to be lost, on top of the unspeakable crime of their mass murder, adds exponentially to the pain of their loss. More: If perpetrators of evil can get away with their deeds, see them laundered in the wash of forgetfulness or error, then goodness itself seems threatened, and with it the meaning of our lives. We cannot draw lessons from history if the facts of what happened are not known. For a small people like the Jews, which existed as a minority group everywhere on earth until the founding of the State of Israel, the need for truth, for facts, for law, is especially crucial. We know how easily the truth can be manipulated to their own advantage by those with power. Remember Amalek, the Torah commands. Do not forget!  The facts must be heard, loud and clear. 

In preparation for this talk, I listened to a remarkable podcast interview with Sara Bloomfield in which she talked about Emanuel Ringelblum’s Holocaust archive from the Warsaw ghetto. Ringelblum, she said, “being Jewish,” was determined to create a record for the future: to “record the truth, no matter how hard it is . . . to tell the truth about the Jews . . . the Germans . . . the Poles . . . about everything.” Jews had to “stand for that higher ideal.” I have always loved the Aggadah—included in David Golinkin’s survey of rabbinic texts on the subject—in which Jeremiah and Daniel declined to use words that had described God in the Torah—“great, powerful, and awe-inspiring.” Why did they do so? I quote Rabbi Eleazar’s reply, with apologies for its gender bias.  “They knew of the Holy One, blessed be He, that He is truthful, and would say nothing untrue about Him” (Yoma 69b). I am equally fond of the midrash (Genesis Rabba 8:5) that pictures some of the angels urging God not to create human beings because they knew that we would often find it necessary or expedient to lie. God “cast truth to the ground” and went ahead with Creation—leading the Psalmist to declare, “truth will rise up from the earth” (85:12).

Whether truth rises up or not in the years to come depends on you and me, Class of 2019, just as bringing forth bread from the earth requires our work, or clothing the naked, or raising up those who are bowed down, or any of the other mitzvot that the rabbis taught that we do in partnership with our Creator. No responsible commencement speaker can pretend that “all’s right with the world” as you go forth to it, or that you and I won’t be sorely tested by events, or that the situation of the Jewish people today is uncomplicated or the Jewish future secure. 

But if we have taught you anything at JTS, I hope it is that our people and the world have been through bad times before, indeed times much worse than these, and that the knowledge and wisdom stored up in Jewish tradition offer a valuable fund on which you can draw, as previous generations have done before us. At the JTS Commencement of 1919, three speakers filled in for President Cyrus Adler and Chairman of the Board of Trustees Louis Marshall, who were participating in the Peace Talks at Versailles that followed the carnage of World War I, “championing the rights of our people, who have been oppressed and who even today are suffering death and agony at the hands of tyrannical mobs.” 

Now, as then, one can have confidence that Torah will help point the way to better times. Your learning of Jewish tradition at JTS, along with the knowledge and wisdom you have garnered from other sources—small-t and capital-T truths—have empowered you. Amass the learning, make the changes, extend the compassion, perform the acts of justice, summon the faith that are required to get us through the current mess. That, I testify with all my heart, is the truth.

God be with you.