Thursday, December 3, 2015

True Dat - Reflections on Parashat VaYeishev 5776

(Genesis 37:1 - 40:23)

We read this week of the confrontation between Tamar and Judah. You will recall that Tamar entraps an unsuspecting Judah into impregnating her, unwittingly fulfilling his obligation of levirate marriage (which he had been procrastinating about.)

In a scene reminiscent of the Montel Williams show, it comes down to the paternity test, aka, who da baby daddy? 

Tamar alone knows. She states that the father of her unborn child left her with three personal items.  She says to Judah, in front of the live TV audience: "Identify, if you will, to whom this signet ring, this strand, and this staff belong."

When confronted with the evidence, Judah says simply, "She is right, the baby is mine." [Collective audience gasp.]

On this verse, the Ba'al HaTurim points out that buried in the Hebrew words for "Identify, if you will, to whom this signet ring belongs..." is encoded the Hebrew word Tireh, revere Gcd. In other words, Tamar is implying that Judah should show reverence for Gcd and admit to the truth.

Because reverence for Gcd equates to an unwavering commitment to uphold the Truth.

Many moons ago, back when I was an undergrad at Georgetown University, I had the privilege and good fortune of being counseled by Dr. Hubert J. Cloke, an English professor and Dean in the Georgetown College. More than anyone else in my academic career, he impressed upon me the value and meaning of a liberal arts education.

He understood scholarship to be a passionate quest to reveal Objective Truth, of working to build the collective body of knowledge about ourselves and the universe we inhabit. 

The academic disciplines - mathematics, the sciences, literature, history, languages, music, art, theology, philosophy - although perhaps speaking different languages, all are different approaches towards understanding the same Grand Truth. Like the many facets of a single large diamond, each discipline contributes a piece to the broader understanding of that Truth.

The purpose of a liberal arts education, then, is to cultivate and sharpen the critical thinking skills indispensable in making reasoned assessments of that which fits in to the Greater Truth and that which does not. 

Like pieces of an infinitely complex puzzle, new nuggets of data are constantly analyzed and placed into the context of that which we already know to be True. When a conflict arises, the nuggets must be either reconciled or rejected, because the classic holistic epistemological approach allows for no internal inconsistencies in Truth.

Dr. Cloke would say repeatedly, "It's all one big ball of wax." And as we constantly see in the Talmud when conflicting views arise: "Lo kashya,"  it's not a difficulty, the opinions can be reconciled as follows...

Post-modern society wants us to believe that classical religious faith is the refuge of the ignorant; that religion is the opiate of masses who require the anaesthetic to escape their empty lives, to imagine meaning where there is nothingness, to flee from the terrifying reality that there is no existence beyond what we experience in the moment.

But is that True?

I contend that the authentic religious personality is motivated, not to hide from the truth, but to aggressively seek it out, because reverence for Gcd is defined as an unwavering commitment to Truth.

Belief in Gcd and His Torah is not at the periphery of the quest for truth, it is at its very heart: "The Seal of Gcd is Truth." (Yoma 69b) Or, stated, differently: Gcd is the Greater Truth to which we all seek, and the sciences and the humanities attempt to apprehend Gcd through His created universe.

Revealed Truth is no less valid than empirical truth, and we see great symbioses between the two. Our knowledge of the sciences and the humanities constantly informs our understanding of Torah, and conversely, our understanding of Torah helps provide context for understanding the world around us.

It's all one big ball of wax, internally consistent; unrelated disciplines coming together to create to a greater, unified whole. 

Over the years, Modern Orthodoxy has struggled to distinguish itself from Chareidut (oy! do I hate those labels). About 25 years ago, Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm wrote an important book called Torah U'Madda, Torah & Science, in which he justifies the pursuit of worldly knowledge through sources in the Torah.

I would go one step farther and suggest that Modern Orthodoxy can be very succinctly defined as follows: the Torah-based philosophical approach that is open to Truth no matter what discipline it derives from, because the Seal of Gcd is Truth. By contrast, the Chareidi view is generally closed to any approach to Truth outside of Torah; it rejects and views antagonistically any notion of Chochma BaGoyim Ta'amin, that there is any wisdom outside of Torah.  

Four thousand years ago, our ancestor Judah compromised his personal prestige, his social standing and his narrow self-interest to admit to a Truth greater than himself. It was his unwavering commitment to the Grand Truth that made him and his descendants fit for the mantle of Jewish leadership throughout the generations.

May we all rise to his noble example.

Shabbat Shalom.

- To read an earlier insight on this parasha, click HERE.

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