Sunday, February 26, 2012

Truth ii: On the pursuit of truth

 Truth, Truth shall you pursue’
Targum Onkeles on Deuteronomy 18:20 

People commonly speak about the ‘pursuit of truth’; an expression suggesting that truth is a limited quality or amount of information discoverable through a combination of time and effort. Indeed, many philosophers and scientists venture to discover ‘the truth’: the hidden universalities that make life intelligible and clear, reconciling all contradictions and solving all mysteries. However, though some [misguided] scholars have professed to have found it, the vast majority discovered that the further they pursued truth, the more elusive it became. Like chasing one’s own shadow, the faster one runs after it, the faster it runs away. Is their common experience at odds with the idiom ‘pursuit of truth’? Perhaps truth cannot be pursued; maybe it is not out there waiting to be found?          

On the verse, “If you will listen, listen to the voice of the L-rd your G-d,”[1] the Midrash comments, “Happy is the one whose ‘listenings’ are to Me, hovering always at My doorways; door within door...”[2] Rabbi Yehuda Leib Alter of Ger, the author of ‘Sefat Emet’, in commenting on this Midrash explains how one must never feel he has conclusively grasped a Torah teaching, for its depth is limitless. This, he adds, is implied by the repetition of the word listen in the original verse cited above; that is, even if you have already listened and understood, listen again... and again - for a higher grasp forever awaits you.[3] The Midrash’s metaphor of a door within a door is apt. The Hebrew word for doorway is delet, denoting emptiness, for a doorway is merely an empty space.[4] Yet, it is precisely this emptiness that allows movement from one room to the next. In respect to Torah study, this is interpreted to mean that one who feels ignorant and empty of a teaching’s true meaning is open to advance to a new level of understanding, but one who feels he has grasped the truth, closes the passage before him.[5] Herein lays one explanation for the mitzvah of fixing Mezuzot on our doorposts. The Mezuzah, a section of Torah written on parchment, represents Torah study in general, while the doorway on which it is affixed signifies the sense of emptiness which is a prerequisite for entering that Torah study.[6]          

This elucidation of the Midrash may appear to support the notion that truth is undiscoverable; that a higher truth is forever beyond. The Ben Ish Chai, a 19th Century Sephardic mystic from Bagdad defines truth as reality beyond human grasp, completely unreachable. Following the Haftarah reading, a blessing is recited which concludes, “And all His words are true and righteous”. The Ben Ish Chai, distinguishes  between the terms ‘true’ and ‘righteous’ as applied to G-d, pointing out that the first and last letters of the Hebrew for righteous, צדק, are neighbours in the Aleph-bet, while the first and last letters of truth, אמת, are at the Aleph-Bet’s opposite ends.[7] This, he explains, signifies two ways that G-d governs our lives. Sometimes G-d reveals to us how the puzzle pieces of life fit neatly together; series of events appear straightforward, and Divine providence becomes evident. At these times we refer to G-d’s conduct as ‘righteous’. At other times, however, G-d distances the puzzle pieces from each other, rendering us incapable of connecting them together; events appear to make little sense and leave us asking ‘Why?’ For instance, ‘how can evil happen to a good person?’ or ‘why was I granted success when I was clearly undeserving?’ In such experiences we refer to G-d’s conduct as ‘true’. The term ‘true’ in this context is used to mean that though the pieces of life’s puzzle appear to human beings as disjointed, random, and mismatched, from G-d’s perspective everything is cohesive, precise, and orderly. G-d can connect the Aleph and the Tav, whereas we cannot; Truth is with G-d alone.[8]

This image of truth as reality beyond human grasp certainly reinforces our difficulty with the expression ‘pursuit of truth’.  Not only are continuously higher levels of truth always available to strive towards, but also truth is categorically beyond human comprehension - that is, comprehension of truth proves it is not the truth! Is this a grim end for the idiom ‘pursuit of truth’? Not necessarily. A simple qualification of the expression may help us resuscitate it. As mentioned, the word ‘pursuit’ in this expression seems to suggest that truth is attainable. Although this may apply to ‘minor’ truths such as finding out who spilled juice on the kitchen floor, even ‘minor’ truths have many facets or perspectives. For instance, there may be several valid and effective ways to go about improving a marriage and all approaches may be true. Or imagine someone interpreting a piece of art, generating several alternate perspectives. Are not all of them ‘true’ interpretations? Perhaps, in such cases, ‘pursuit of truth’ can be modified to ‘pursuit of truths’- after all, we need only add one measly letter!

  Alternatively, we may only need to re-frame our interpretation of the phrase ‘pursuit of truth’ in order to realise the expression’s validity to even Divine Truth.  We can reinterpret ‘pursuit of truth’ as implying a never-ending quest. Although the infinite ‘Truth’ cannot be grasped in a finite number of steps, the process of seeking Truth can still be attempted. After all, does anyone seriously believe there will come a point in his learning when there will be no more knowledge to attain? Or that in actualising his potential he will reach the zenith of perfection beyond which progress is impossible? On the ladder to truth, regardless how high one climbs there will always be more rungs above him; Truth charms us into an endless journey.[9] The closest one comes to finding Truth is realizing its endlessness.  Although before Truth one stands empty and ignorant, from within this sense of emptiness may spring a childlike curiosity to explore and discover reality.[10] And the stronger the curiosity, the more openly does infinite Truth glow within. Put in other words, the extent to which one is motivated to ‘pursue Truth’ reveals the degree to which one has found it; one who genuinely feels he has an infinite journey of discovery ahead of him, has indeed grasped Truth. The Kotzker put it elegantly: “the pursuing is itself the finding!”[11]

[1] Devarim, 28:1
[2] Midrash Rabbah, Devarim 7:2
[3] Sefat Emet, Sefer Devarim, Parshat Tavo, 5632
[4] Wisdom of the Hebrew Alphabet, p.78, citing the Maharal
[5] For a similar concept see Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, Likutei Sichot, Vol.1, p.129 
[6] Sefat Emet, ibid
[7] Ben Ish chai, ‘Od Yoseph Chai’, Parshat Nosso
[9] Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, The Thirteen Petalled Rose, Basic Books, 1980, p.133  
[10]  Hence man’s Good Inclination is referred to as a child, Kohelet 4:13
[11] Rabbi Abraham J.Twerski, Rebbes and Chassidim, p.91

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