World of the Sages: Seeking Truth

To a religious mind, Truth is associated with the indefinable Almighty. The pursuit of Truth, therefore, is the quest for knowledge of the Divine.

Truth - with a capital T - is a certainty we crave. At times we may feel that we have achieved this elusive ideal, only to sober up to the fact that any Truth we identify is at most truth as viewed through our own subjective eyes. To a religious mind, Truth is associated with the indefinable Almighty. The pursuit of Truth, therefore, is the quest for knowledge of the Divine. Emet (truth) is the word that opens the passage recited immediately following the twice-daily Shema prayer. Our sages instruct against interruption or even pause between the conclusion of Shema and the beginning of the next paragraph, explaining this position with reference to the scriptural verse where Jeremiah juxtaposed a reference to God - as in the final two words of Shema - with the word emet: "But the Lord is the true God" (Jeremiah 10:10; M. Berachot 2:2; B. Berachot 14a-b). Thus the word emet in this prayer serves a dual function: it concludes the recitation of Shema and simultaneously launches the following passage. This twofold purpose led to an uncertainty: Is a single recitation of the word emet sufficient or should the word be uttered twice - once for each role. The talmudic sages are divided on this issue. Insisting on a repetition of the word emet is an understandable position, as each recitation serves a different passage of prayer. This opinion, however, is not accepted as the halachic rule (Shulhan Aruch OH 66:6). It is somewhat more difficult to fathom the normative single recitation for a dual meaning. Some commentators explain that duplicating the word emet is akin to repeating other key words in the service that might indicate a belief in dualism - the doctrine that reality consists, or is the outcome, of two ultimate principles. Our tradition resolutely rejected dualism, and hence a prayer leader who implied dualistic empathy was swiftly silenced. The sages called for the ejection of a leader who says "modim, modim" (we give thanks, we give thanks) instead of just saying the word once, and this rule is applied to one who opens the Shema by saying "shema, shema" (hear, hear) or repeats the first verse (M. Berachot 5:3; B. Berachot 33b). Similarly, duplicating the word emet may insinuate a belief in two Truths and hence two deities. Thus a single recitation is encouraged (Rabbi Yehuda Aryeh da Modena, 16th-17th centuries, Venice and others). A careful comparison, however, reveals a striking distinction between the two repetitions. While repetition of modim or shema leads to the hushing of the leader, no such sanction is advocated for duplicating emet. What's more, one sage even promotes repeating the word. Indeed, the Talmud relates the tale of a characterless prayer leader who dared to repeat the word emet in the presence of Rabba, the proponent of the single-recitation-dual-use position. Instead of summarily gagging the leader, Rabba tolerantly and somewhat cryptically responded: "This person was seized by emet." Thus it appears that the duplication of the word emet is not of the same valence as the repetition of other significant words in the service. The discussion regarding the word emet and its repetition may reflect a fundamental question: Is there indeed a single, absolute Truth? Jewish scholars over the generations have pondered this key matter, and its ancillary query: If there is indeed such an ultimate Truth, what is our duty and accountability vis- -vis this reality? According to the Maharal of Prague (16th-17th centuries), Truth is the only genuine unity in this physical world. The Maharal identifies this singular, unchanging Truth with God. Following on from this definitive stance, we may have a new understanding of the hesitation in duplicating the word emet: such a repetition might smack of manifold truths and hence imply multiple deities. Despite the Maharal's clarity in confirming the existence of a single Divine Truth, we are still bereft of a means of accessing this lofty target. The poet-scholar Rabbi Yehuda Halevi (12th century, Spain) claims that we can rest assured that rabbinic leadership - with endowed and earned wisdom, piety, safety in numbers and Divine assistance - will reach the coveted objective of absolute Truth. Skeptics may be confounded by such a suggestion that provides a guarantee that can never be proven nor tested. Moreover, the prevalence of arguments among the sages appears to call this notion into question. A creative approach to the Truth conundrum is suggested by one halachist - Rabbi Aryeh Leib Hacohen Heller (18th-19th centuries, Galicia) - who in the introduction to his work, Ketzot HaHoshen, champions the existence of an absolute Truth, but denies our obligation to align ourselves with this distinguished entity. The legal system, he argues, is entrusted in our human, fallible hands and we are charged with operating this system with integrity; any correlation between our mortal conclusions and Divine Truth are fortunate and valuable, but cannot be substantiated. Hence absolute Truth is not essential to our existence; we are obligated by the earthly perception of truth, and not by the exalted Divine Truth. A maverick position that leaves room for the possibility of multiple Divine Truths is proposed by the Spanish Talmudist Ritva (13th-14th centuries) in the name of unidentified French scholars. Building on the oft-quoted rabbinic adage - "These and these are the words of the living God" (B. Eruvin 13b), Ritva suggests that there is no concept of a mistaken halachic position in the eyes of the Almighty. The gamut of possible outcomes is all divinely legitimate, and the only concept of truth is an earthly notion of normative practice. Therefore, any ruling arrived at by legitimate authority reflects Truth, albeit one Truth of many possible Truths. As we conclude the Shema with the declaration that God is True, it is uncertain whether the quest for absolute Truth bears us tangible fruits. Nevertheless, the longing for a greater understanding of the Divine and our consequent place and role in this world is certainly valuable, as we continue to strive to find meaning in our existence. The writer is director of Advanced Programs at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, teaches at Midreshet Lindenbaum and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.