Rosh Hashanah—Seeking Truth

Truth is one of the names of God.

We are standing on two feet. As a community and as a country, we are strong. But the ground feels unfirm, as if at any moment it might give. I am looking for a solid truth to grasp onto.

In Hebrew, the word for truth is emet. Now that I’ve put it in your minds, you will notice it all over the High Holiday prayer book. Emet, truth, is so highly valued, it is considered to be one of the names of God. Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel taught that the world depends on three things: justice, truth and peace.

But part of the uncertainty of our time is an insecurity around the very nature of emet. What IS truth? Does it even exist?

I find myself turning back to the time before I became a rabbi, and my long years of training as a scientist, and I want to share with you some of that perspective.

In the science laboratory, everything begins with data. Facts. That’s almost a truism.

But what makes or breaks the scientist is what they do with the facts.  The most basic facts themselves are uninteresting.  A point on a graph. A glowing line on a gel. A smudge on a piece of film.  The scientist has to find patterns in these bits of information, and put them into a context.

In that sense, the scientific laboratory is a microcosm of the real world.  The human mind is working all the time to make meaning out of facts.

Successful scientists are able to tell a good story about their data. Let me explain what I mean. For my PhD experiments, my data usually consisted of a pattern of glowing lines on an agar gel. Those lines were interesting only because we told about them the story that each line contained billions of DNA molecules, all of the same shape and size. That core story had been developed and reaffirmed through literally hundreds of thousands of experiments, long before I purified my first DNA samples. I used those core stories to help me interpret my own data, and to develop new stories about how the DNA molecules in my particular samples took on the shapes they had.

What is emet? A pattern of glowing lines on an agar gel? That’s a fact. I can photograph it. But without some explanation, it hardly deserves the lofty title of truth. Emet.

Truth has to be meaningful.  A truth is a story we tell, based on the facts we know.

And it is in that leap, from fact to truth, that all types of misunderstandings, mistakes, and sometimes even deceptions, can slip in.

So I’d like to take a good, hard look at how we build our truths from our facts.

Yossi Klein HaLevi, a scholar at the Hartman institute, recently published a book — “Letter to My Palestinian Neighbor” — with the stated goal of sharing the Jewish story with the Muslim world.  In the introduction to the book he wrote: “One of the main obstacles to peace is an inability to hear the other side’s story.”

How is it that two such deeply conflicting narratives, that of Israeli Jews and that of Palestinians, can co-exist?  Is one false and the other true? Individuals from both groups have, on occasion, told lies. But overall, neither the story of the wandering, persecuted people finally returning to our beloved homeland, nor the story of an indigenous people forced into exile, is false.  It’s just that each narrative chooses to emphasize a different set of events.

Pulling in from the national to the personal: on several occasions I have been in a position to offer pastoral counseling to both members of a couple going through separation or divorce.  It is remarkable how two people who have lived together can have radically different stories to tell about their shared life. In some cases, one of them is either lying or in denial. But often, both are accurately reporting true events.  It’s just that each accurately remembers different moments. If only they could really hear each other’s stories.

A laboratory scientist has the power to control the parameters of his experiment. Each experiment yields a limited set of facts, around which the scientist can tell a small story. But outside of the laboratory, we usually don’t have the luxury of building our truths one careful pixel at a time.  Events rush past us at every moment, far too many for any one mind to contain. Our brains select out the data that are most important to our stories.

That’s why it’s so important to seek out diverse voices as we go about trying to understand our world. Rabbi Ezray’s message yesterday, asking us to stay connected when we disagree, is important not just for the sake of peace and justice, but also for the third pillar: truth. I cherish the diversity within our community, as tenuous as it sometimes feels.

Take this very sermon as an example. Two nights ago, I thought I had a final draft of this sermon. But just in case, on Saturday night I sent it to a member of our community whose political views are quite different from mine. She hated it. She said parts of it made her so angry, she couldn’t listen to what I was saying. Most importantly, she helped me to see areas in which my perspective was limited. With just a few hours to go before the holiday, I ripped up a third of the sermon and rewrote it. I needed her! I needed her perspective to expand my vision. And I expect I will still say things today that she disagrees with, and I know I will say things that others will disagree with. And I hope you will tell me, and that we will have respectful dialogue from which each of us will emerge with a deeper, more truthful story.

The full truth is too big for any individual to compile, let alone comprehend. We need each other. We need diverse experiences to advance our understanding of truth.

And there’s another reason we need to be able to disagree. Because disagreements keep us honest. When we live in our own heads, or surrounded by voices that agree with us, we can become sloppy in our thinking. We have no provocation to examine our truths and be sure they are based on facts.  And while conflicting stories, shaped by different experiences, emphasizing different facts, can both be true — stories built on falsehoods, are simply false.

One of my labmates in graduate school spent years trying to isolate a particular DNA structure, that was the key piece of evidence for a favored hypothesis. They were technically very demanding experiments; I couldn’t have stuck with it as long as she did. In her 6th year in the lab, she finally got it. She found the DNA structure! Her first results came in just as we were all heading off to a conference, and our advisor made my friend’s work the centerpiece of her talk at the conference.

As soon as we got back from the conference, my friend hit the bench to repeat her experiments and expand on her results. She couldn’t do it. The DNA structures were gone. She tried and tried, but she never saw them again. Eventually, our advisor had to call many of her colleagues and tell them she had made a mistake.

The whole thing was terribly embarrassing for both of them. But things like that happen all the time. Scientists have to be flexible in their thinking, and I’ve seen many scientists up-end their own conclusions when new data contradicted them. When a scientists isn’t flexible, and is unable to let go of her ideas when the data contradict them, eventually she will be found (though it can take a while) – through the process of peer review, and through the way in which scientists build on one another’s experiments.

Out in the real world, we don’t have such structures in place to help keep us honest.  And Lord knows, outside of the laboratory, all of us have areas where we cannot see any facts that contradict our understanding of truth.

Sometimes, our falsehoods stare us in the face, and we don’t see them. We tell ourselves we are incapable of doing something, and so we don’t even try. We tell ourselves someone dislikes us, when that person generally shows a sour expression to everyone. We tell ourselves that someone else is to blame for our own failings.  We love a person, and become incapable of seeing wrong in their actions. We hate a person, and become incapable of seeing any good in them.

Broad generalization are a common form of falsehood. So is exaggeration. I want to call out one particular exaggeration, because I have seen that it is driving a wedge in our community, and I’m not sure how many people are aware of it. It’s the reference to the Holocaust to describe events happening right here, right now in America. Please read, or reread, Elie Wiesel’s “Night”, or Victor Frankel’s “Man’s Search for Meaning”.  I think either would remind you that, as harsh as things may be here, the comparison of any US policy to Nazism is false. Know that when we invoke our ultimate trauma, we bring out our worst emotions – panic and an inability to hear opposing views.

Finding truth in the real world is a complex, messy business.  We need to be willing to listen, even when our gut is tightening against a story or set of facts. We need to be able to face two opposing stories, and recognize the truthful core of each – or to call out the falsehoods in one or both.

All around us, I see people throwing up their hands in the face of this challenge. I hear implicit denial of the possibility of truth, and explicit mistrust of the concept of expertise: the painstaking, time-intensive process of building-up an understanding based on facts.

Someone in my extended family said to me recently: “You can’t trust journalists; they cherry-pick their facts.”  Well, every journalist does have their own perspective, and it is important to seek out a variety of news sources with different slants. But if government is to be of, for and by the people, it’s our responsibility to stay informed. If you won’t trust journalists to inform you about events you cannot witness with your own eyes, who will you trust?

“I don’t trust doctors, they are all under the influence of big pharm.”  It may be the case that pharmaceutical companies and their profits have an outsized role in medicine. Does that mean we dismiss all of medical research in favor of an internet search?

“How can scientists predict climate change, when they can’t even predict the weather?” There will always be gaps in understanding, as scientists themselves will be the first to admit – though climate science in particular has been advancing at a remarkable pace.  And again, who else are we to rely on to formulate an understanding of climate, if not the experts who spend most of their waking hours carefully analyzing the data?

A more nuanced view is necessary. Experts don’t have all the answers, and sometimes a novice can bring a perspective that they can’t see because they are in it so close. What worries me is the categorical dismissal of expertise. The rejection of the understanding that truth emerges from studying facts. When we lose all of our trust for experts, when we believe that truth is amorphous and every narrative has equal claim, then we are free to build our edifices on any notions that please us.  Ultimately, such structures are bound to crumble.

This rejection of evidenced-based thinking has been happening in our country for many years. But increasingly it has become more explicit, and from more powerful sources.  The president of our country, the leader of the land, categorically dismissing the entire news media as “fake”? Tweeting that the New York Times, CNN and ABC News are an “enemy of the American people”!  The free press – enemy of the people? Those are very dangerous words.

יַעַן הַכְאוֹת לֵב-צַדִּיק שֶׁקֶר
Lies cow the hearts of the righteous, said the prophet Ezekiel.

I wish it were just the president, but it’s not. Our politicians, right and left—the people we have entrusted to lead us—have been shamelessly hurling stones at each other, at our intelligence agencies, at our judicial system, at our free press. The onslaught of empty and false accusations is eroding trust in the foundations of our democracy.

All this amidst the scary reality of actual fake news disseminated freely on the internet, and actual meddling in our elections from an outside government. False accusations serve to screen real ones, allowing lies to masquerade as truth.

אָהַבְתָּ … שֶׁקֶר, מִדַּבֵּר צֶדֶק
You have loved lies rather than speak words of justice, accuses Psalms.

This is not the right way! Truth is real. We have an obligation to pursue it with openness, flexibility and the courage to identify falsehoods and remove them from our stories.

Not just in the realm of politics—in every aspect of our lives. When are we most likely to make claims based on exaggerations, hearsay, or a few anecdotal examples? I know for me, it’s when I have *point* I want to prove.

But when I am less concerned about being right, and more concerned with finding what’s right—that’s when I slow down. When I listen to all the evidence. When I want to hear the other side of the story, and am willing to reconsider my ideas. Because the goal is emet—truth.

Ultimately, the fullness of truth is enormous beyond our understanding. It reaches far past the human imagination, and has space for conflicting narratives. But it has no room for falsehood. For emet is one of the names of God.