Years ago, on the fourth floor of the American Museum of Natural History, my eight-year-old niece vacationing in New York made a thoughtful announcement.
“This is hard,” she said. We had just entered the Hall of Saurischian Dinosaurs (home of T-Rex).
“Why?” I asked.
“Because of the creation story in the Torah.”
I can’t recall exactly what I said, but I think she was satisfied with a brief explanation. And I am certain that we skipped the Hall of Human Origins, featuring the remains of “Lucy” and lifelike recreations of our hominid ancestors. We already had our teachable moment.
More than a little was at stake for the sensitive girl in this seemingly innocuous scene. This was not just a room full of fossils. Dinosaur exhibits measure time in MYA (millions of years ago), a scale rarely used in elementary-school Bible lessons. Her thoughts were likely along these lines: “Was there really life on Earth more than six thousand years ago? Which story is true, the one I was taught in school or the one right in front of me? Are we allowed to question the Bible?” Questions of this kind are not, of course, exclusive to young people — they occur regularly to educated adults who struggle to reconcile apparent religious truths with conflicting secular narratives.
A more risk-averse approach to religious education might bypass such a scenario. For example, we could have remained on the lower floors of the museum — theological questions are less likely to arise among the taxidermic wonders ringing the Halls of African and North American mammals (though the massive dinosaur skeletons in the museum’s entrance are fairly unavoidable). To shore up her pristine faith, I might have told my niece — and my own children, on many such occasions — that Genesis is the absolute literal truth on creation and that scientific theories are mostly human inventions. Scientists abandon their theories all the time, don’t they?
Some religious communities prefer to avoid, censor, or revise unsettling information. Religious high schools may tear out the chapter on evolution from their biology textbooks. In an honest attempt to inspire, religious educators may feed their students — even their adult students — a diet of pious fictions about historical figures they consider role models.
Marc B. Shapiro’s recently published book, Changing the Immutable, documents the unfortunate and often ugly tendency of many contemporary Orthodox writers, editors, and publishers to flout the truth. It is a shocking exposé. Shapiro provides graphic evidence of texts and images that were censored, doctored, and effaced to conform with preconceived and largely recent notions of religious propriety. The standard justification for such practices — stated explicitly by apologists cited in the book — is a paternalistic, relativist, Soviet-style definition of truth as whatever narrative the storyteller wants his audience to believe. The goal is to present truth as what it ought to be rather than what it is. Education becomes indoctrination; objectivity is sacrificed for the higher good of moral instruction. To some minds, this is a profitable bargain.
I read Shapiro’s history of the noble lie in Orthodox culture as a cautionary tale. It is a story of piety run amok — an indictment of a reactionary mindset so desperate, presumptuous, and intellectually bankrupt, it has to lie its way out of the ideological quagmire into which it has fallen.
A society built on institutionalized falsehood will not stand. That is what the mishnah in Avot (1:18) means when it calls justice, truth, and peace the three pillars of civilization.
Truth — genuine truth, not its relativistic imitation — is not only a moral imperative; it is a prerequisite for the religious experience. The quest for holiness cannot even begin if man denies the reality he desires to sanctify. We can only ascend towards Heaven on a ladder grounded in the truth.
And truth must be an essential component of any authentic Jewish philosophy. The Talmud states that God’s seal is truth. Reality in all of its manifestations — nature, the human soul, society, history — is God’s imprint on His world. It is nearly blasphemous to forge the divine signature with editorial contrivances and cheap Photoshop tricks.
To protect their children, parents may hide from them the truth. It is a parent’s right and sometimes their obligation to do so. But when a child grows up, lies become patronizing rather than protective — an adult has his own right to the truth. A society which views its members as children may supply them with a false version of reality and of its own history, but this requires a conspiracy of silence between the storyteller and his audience about the flaws in their childish narrative. In the 21st century, such an arrangement is unlikely to succeed.