Sunday, August 25, 2013

The Truth, the Whole Truth, and Nothing but the Truth

 As we approach the Day of Judgment, one wonders how we might focus in preparing for our case before the Most High Judge, who will judge us with the unvarnished truth, hopefully tempered with mercy.   The truth about all of our lives – our accomplishments and shortcomings, the justifiable explanations and the empty excuses, that which was done with sincerity and the times that we just went through the motions  (or even failed to do that) – all of it will be reviewed and judged by the Judge of Truth on these Days of Awe.  It would seem that the least we could do to prepare ourselves to meet the Judge of Truth is to be truthful ourselves, and only then ask for Divine Mercy given our shortcomings as frail, limited, mortal humans.

Unfortunately, it seems to me that whole and complete Truth is a rare commodity in our world.  Note: I did not say that Truth is a rare commodity.   There is a lot of Truth that is spoken about many topics, and that is adhered to by so many wonderful people.   What is rare, however, is “Complete Truth”. By this I mean Truth based on all sides of complex issues, and not just the part of Truth that is consistent with our desires and prejudices.   I maintain that much of what I hear stated about so many issues is not “Complete Truth”, but rather “Half-Truth”s that attempt to reduce an issue to a black and white resolution favoring one aspect, rather than a nuanced understanding that the Truth is far more complex. And the old yiddish saying, “A Half-truth is a Whole Lie” might just apply.

I would like to explain my thesis by way of example – selecting several representative issues from the many that would bear such analysis – in the limited space I have here:

*    The Rambam's attitude towards Kollel Learning – The ongoing debate in Eretz Yisroel (and to a lesser extent in the US) about the future of the Kollel system is well known.   Given that it ought to be fairly self-evident that the current model is economically unsustainable, and that the vast majority of Israelis are in favor of reducing government subsidies to the ever-growing Kollel population, those who argue for the status quo look for Torah-based justification for their point of view.   One of the most frequently quoted sources for the validity of the Kollel system is the following statement by the Rambam at the end of Hilchos Shmitta V'Yovel (13:13):

ולא שבט לוי בלבד אלא כל איש ואיש מכל באי העולם אשר נדבה רוחו אותו והבינו מדעו להבדל לעמוד לפני ה' לשרתו ולעובדו לדעה את ה' והלך ישר כמו שעשהו האלהים ופרק מעל צוארו עול החשבונות הרבים אשר בקשו בני האדם הרי זה נתקדש קדש קדשים ויהיהה' חלקו ונחלתו לעולם ולעולמי עולמים ויזכה לו בעה"ז דבר המספיק לו כמו שזכה לכהנים ללוים :
Not only the tribe of Levi, but any one of the inhabitants of the world whose spirit generously motivates them and thus understands with his wisdom to set himself aside and stand before God to serve Him and minister to Him and to know God, proceeding justly as God made him, removing from his neck the yoke of the many reckonings which people seek, he is sanctified as Holy of Holies. God will be His portion and heritage forever and will provide what is sufficient for him in this world like He provides for the priests and the Levites

The Rambam thus holds, so goes the argument, that whosoever chooses a way of life in which they are supported by public funds, avoiding participation in general civic responsibilities, and devoting their lives to service of Hashem, is choosing the path of Kodesh Kodoshim, the Holy of Holies, and will be blessed for it.  Ergo, Kollel life is the ultimate good.  During my recent trip to Israel, I saw a Chareidi newspaper quoting a leading Torah personality who offered this as THE proof that status quo in the Kollel system must be defended at all costs.

But is this the whole truth?   Let us look at what the Rambam says in Hilchos Talmud Torah (3:10):

כל המשים על לבו שיעסוק בתורה ולא יעשה מלאכה ויתפרנס מן הצדקה הרי זה חלל את השם ובזה את התורה וכבה מאור הדת וגרם רעה לעצמו ונטל חייו מן העולם הבא לפי שאסור ליהנות מדברי תורה בעולם הזה אמרו חכמים כל הנהנה מדברי תורה נטל חייו מן העולם ועוד צוו ואמרו אל תעשם עטרה להתגדל בהן ולא קרדום לחפור בהן ועוד צוו ואמרו אהוב את המלאכה ושנא את הרבנות וכל תורה שאין עמה מלאכה סופה בטילה וגוררת עון וסוף אדם זה שיהא מלסטם את הבריות

Anyone who comes to the conclusion that he should involve himself in Torah study without doing work and derive his livelihood from charity, desecrates [God's] name, dishonors the Torah, extinguishes the light of faith, brings evil upon himself, and forfeits the life of the world to come, for it is forbidden to derive benefit from the words of Torah in this world.
Our Sages declared: "Whoever benefits from the words of Torah forfeits his life in the world." Also, they commanded and declared: "Do not make them a crown to magnify oneself, nor an ax to chop with." Also, they commanded and declared: "Love work and despise Rabbinic positions." All Torah that is not accompanied by work will eventually be negated and lead to sin. Ultimately, such a person will steal from others.[1]

Anyone, even one completely unfamiliar with the Brisker Derech that is so popular in the Yeshiva world, can see that this seems to be a classic סתירה (contradiction) in the Rambam.   Given the enormous respect that exists for consistency in the Rambam's work, one normally strives to find an approach that allows both of the statements to be true, each in its own context (צויי  דינים) . In fact such solutions readily exist, of course, although I do not have space to go into them here.[2]  If one is intellectually honest, one does not just ignore the source that is inconvenient or that argues against a position that one favors.  

And yet, this is routinely done in the Yeshiva world.  The quote from the Rambam in Shmitta V'Yovel is always trotted out, while the one in Hilchos Talmud Torah is suppressed and ignored.  This is what I am referring to as a “Half-Truth”.

*    Women of the Wall – One of the great controversies that erupted this summer was over the rights of the so-called “Women of the Wall” to conduct an egalitarian prayer service while wearing Tallitot and Tefillin on Rosh Chodesh mornings, praying loudly in a manner that is highly offensive to the vast majority of those who usually frequent the holy Kotel HaMaaravi.   In stating their case, they assert that the Kotel is not an Orthodox synagogue, and the non-Orthodox have just as much right to pray there as anyone else.  They furthermore state that they are motivated by their strong desire to worship Hashem and that there are some classical Jewish sources that permit women to wear Tallitot and Tefillin. Although these assertions are somewhat debatable, let us grant that they are truth.   But are they the whole truth?

Is it not also true that if what they really wanted was to worship Hashem at the Kotel Maaravi, an alternate site is available 200 feet away, at the Southern portion of the Western Wall, which is just as Holy and which would have the great advantage of avoiding conflict, whereby they would be able to pray in peace to their heart's content while not antagonizing those who worship differently?   And much as there may be some classical sources that speak of  Holy women who wanted to go beyond that which was required of them, and thus added Talit & Tefillin, is it not true that many of the leaders of the Women of the Wall are not observant of basic Jewish practice such as Shabbos, thus making their additional spiritual striving somewhat suspect? Is it not also true that a major objective of the WOW is not religious fervor, but rather political activism to undermine the prevailing Orthodox custom?[3]

This is another example of a Half-Truth being told to the media, rather than the Whole Truth

*    The Status of Bein Adam L'Chaveiro – Our communities have a lot of justifiable pride in the many wonderful ways that our interpersonal relationships have improved tremendously over the last several decades.  There is a far greater vigilance against Lashon Hara, many more Chessed organizations doing wonderful work, programs and shiurim galore on various areas of improvement attract many attendees. It is certainly true that we have come a long way, and that there is much to be proud of in how we are working to be better towards each other.

Unfortunately, it is equally true that there is still so much to be deplored in our community.  So much cynicism and skepticism, suspicion of others that are not exactly like us, intolerance of others not on our religious standard, and derision of those with whom we disagree.   There are so many divisions and arguments and conflicts.  The plague of Sinat Chinom (baseless hatred) is all too alive and well.

To dwell on only one or the other of these sides, would be to see only a Half-Truth, not the Whole Truth.

*    Internet Access in the Home – The truth is that the internet presents a great spiritual danger.  We have all heard stories of the many lured into sin and miserable personal problems by the pervasive hard and soft pornography; internet addiction, (including sexual addiction that is fed by the internet) is a real problem.   While in the past a person who wanted to view illicit material might have had to go across town and hide in order to access it, it is now easily accessible, mostly for free, in the private comfort of one's basement.  Even for those who are not lured by the really negative stuff on the internet, it presents a problem of unlimited access to endless entertainment and video, which can lead to wasting one's life while neglecting family, business and of course Torah study.   This is a truth that cannot be denied.

But it is only Half-Truth.  The internet is also a tremendous blessing.   It is has tremendously valuable Torah resources on it, and has brought learning and shiurim and programs and help to millions.   It is also an invaluable tool for so many vital tasks, and an indispensable tool in any sort of business or commercial undertaking.  Used properly, the internet can be a great force for the good, and thus is not going away anytime soon.

Given the problems caused by the internet, many Rabbonim and community leaders (and for that matter leaders in the non-Jewish community as well) have tried to find ways to combat this scourge, sometimes by taking absolutist measures, such as were discussed in the large gathering at Citi Field last year.  From what I have heard, however, most of those efforts have failed to accomplish what was hoped for, as very many looked at those efforts as hopelessly out of touch with the real world. 

In my opinion, that is because the pronouncements were based on Half-Truth.  If the story is painted black and white, with the other side totally demonized and excoriated, when many know deep down that the positions taken are overstated, little or nothing is accomplished.   It is only when one takes a nuanced approach that acknowledges both sides of the truth, both the positive and the negative, and crafts realistic approaches in cognizance of both, that Whole Truth will emerge, and be adhered to.

There are many other similar issues that come to mind.   The attitude of the American Jewish community towards the mitzvah of living in Eretz Yisrael, the appropriate role of of women in communal leadership, the Shidduch crisis, secular education . . . and many others.  If only people would realize that most major issues in life are complex, and that there are many sides to be considered before deciding what the solution should be, we would be much farther along to finding the truth and less prone to end up with Half-Truth.[4]

In closing, I hope that as we approach the Day of Judgment, we find the courage to be honest, to accept those parts of the truth that does not necessarily fit with our preconceptions and prejudices, and to try to pursue Truth as it is, not only as we would like to be.  It is only thus that we can feel justified in approaching the Judge of Truth, hoping for His Mercy

Have Sweet and Happy New Year!

[1]                 This is very mild compared to what the Rambam says in his commentary to the Mishnah in Avot (2:2).
[2]    Cf. Shaarei Talmud Torah, Rabbi Prof. Leo Levi, (Feldheim 1980) in which he shows that in Shmitta V'Yovel the Rambam never intended that Torah scholars should be supported by public funds, but rather that like the Tribe of Levi, they be released from certain civic obligations and be given some preferences in business so that they might earn their livelihood with greater ease, freeing up more time for Torah and Avodas Hashem.  It is interesting that this book, which presents the whole truth regarding the mitzvah of Talmud Torah, was banned in Chareidi circles, though it had approbations from R Yaakov Kamenetzky and R Pinchas Menachem Alter זצ״ל
[3] Anat Hoffman, leader of WOW works at the Reform Action Center as her “day job”, where her main passion is to find ways to " see that the powerful Orthodox bloc in the City Council does not dictate lifestyle choices for the secular population of Jerusalem", as well as fighting for the civil rights of the Palestinians in Jerusalem, according to her bio.
[4]    There was a wonderful article published this summer Klal perspectives by Dr. Aharon Hersh Fried, in which he argued for the importance of gathering enough of the correct data before making decisions, that would serve well as a complement to this essay.  It is available on the INTERNET at

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