Do I really understand truth better than a sixth grader? I don’t think so anymore.
I teach Talmud and Rabbinics to the middle school students at our local Jewish day school. Standing out among all of them, my sixth-grade students are an especially bright and engaged group. Recently, we were reviewing the rabbinic concept of kal va-homer, argument from a minor to a major premise. This is a common tool of reasoning in Talmudic literature, which posits that if X is the case, then logically speaking, Y is even more the case. One good example of this argument, in fact, is found in the Bible, when Moses argues with God: “If the Israelites won’t listen to me, certainly Pharaoh won’t listen to me.” Recognizing the shakiness of his leadership influence with his own enslaved people, Moses argues that it is even more the case that Pharaoh, their sworn enemy and oppressor, would not listen to his appeals on their behalf.
The principle of kal va-homer is not very hard to understand, and we all likely use such reasoning in our everyday lives. What can make it hard to comprehend is a lack of precise language to explain it. That morning, I explained to the class that the principle works in the following way:
“If X is true, then how much more so is Y true.”
The words were hardly out of my mouth when I caught one of my students, fidgeting in her seat.
“What’s the matter? Don’t you understand this idea?” I asked her.
“Rabbi, the idea doesn’t make sense,” she responded with a slight grimace.
“Why not,”” I nervously retorted.
“Well,” she replied, the wheels of her sharp, young mind clearly spinning at warp speed, “Once something is true, it can’t be more true. If something is true it’s just…true; otherwise it’s not true.”
I started sweating, as I mustered added examples of the principle from my teacher’s arsenal to demonstrate its impeccable logic and my impeccable pedagogic skill. She remained unconvinced: “If something is true, then it’s true and nothing else. It can’t be more true!”
Have you ever had that experience of scales falling from your eyes as you submit with humble grace to more powerful forces in the universe? That’s sort of what happened to me, as this eleven-year old philosopher humbled me with her sophistication and thoughtfulness, becoming the teacher as I became the student. She was correct: my language was woefully imprecise, in that truth means something very specific that didn’t really apply to what we were studying. Though many truths can co-exist, one truth can’t be more true than another. Truth is…well…just truth!
Judaism obviously has a lot to say about truth. God is the essence of truth, and we are commanded to emulate God by following prohibitions such as not bearing false witness against our fellow human beings. The Torah conveys its broader religious and ethical vision for the world somewhat indirectly, through stories and laws, not through philosophical statements. To get a more explicit sense of that broader vision, it helps to look at other Jewish religious teachings, in the writings of those very same rabbinic sages whose lessons I teach my students. A classic statement about truth can be found at the very end of the first chapter of Pirke Avot, Ethics of The Sages, 1:18:
Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel taught: The world rests on three things—on justice, on truth and on peace, as it is written, “With truth, justice and peace shall you judge in your gates” (Zechariah 8:16)
Note two unique features of this teaching. First, it echoes the beginning of this chapter, in which a different Rabbi Shimon, (The Righteous), teaches famously that the world rests upon Torah study, prayer, and acts of kindness. Both teachings are bookends, the first asserting that Torah, prayer and kindness are the foundations of all existence, the last asserting that justice, truth, and peace are the foundations for human societal order. Second, look at how Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel reverses the order of the quotation from the book of Zechariah. Zechariah the prophet declared that truth, followed by justice and peace, is the essential ingredient in the dispensing of societal order. Shimon places justice first on his list, implying that first there must be justice before truth and peace can undergird the foundations of society. More than a mere word reversal, Shimon’s choice of word order reveals, I believe, his firm conviction that without a prior commitment to justice and fairness, there can be no real commitment to truth, and ultimately, to peace. Think of his teaching as an ancient version of the modern political slogan, “No justice no peace.”
My student philosopher taught me that there is nothing more true beyond what is, in fact, already true. In the Western world’s current bleak political circumstances, truth is in desperately short supply not merely because of social media abuse and disinformation campaigns, but because of a dearth of justice. As complex as our current political misery is, its source is perhaps simply this: far too many of the people with the extraordinary power to tell the truth won’t do it, because they are not committed to justice. Truth may exist in some Platonic realm of higher reality, beyond which there is nothing truer than what is true. Yet for it to work properly in our everyday reality, you and I have to believe that it is fair and just to tell the truth.
You and I and millions of others, do believe in truth, telling it as well as the fact of its existence. We believe in the inseparable, absolutely necessary, connection between truth, justice and peace. We have always been willing – howbeit imperfectly – to live by these values, and if need be, to die for them. As enraged as we may be by the ugly, unjust lies being told by people of power who claim to wear the mantle of truth, we dare not desist from our quest for justice, truth and peace. We need to also resist being intimidated by the belligerent claim that truth is simply a matter of opinion, a plaything to be manipulated in the hands of different handlers at different times. Just as there is nothing more true than what is true, so too, there is no such thing as a lie being true because you want it to be true. Finally, let’s not despair of the vindication of justice, truth and peace. Society’s survival rests squarely upon them, and their success rests squarely upon each of our shoulders, whether we are sixth graders or seniors. Nothing could be more true than this.