What does it mean to speak of the truth of Judaism?

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I want to examine here the question of what we mean by such religious terms as truth and faith or belief. Both the terms faith and truth can be used in an orthodox and philosophic sense reflecting an intellectual and rational conception of faith and truth in which faith and truth are conceived in an abstract sense divorced from feelings and actions – and the terms can be used in an orthoprax (pragmatic) and psychological sense in which faith and truth are necessarily connected to feelings and actions.

In the Hebrew Bible the term truth (emet) is etymologically related to the term faith or belief (emunah). Both terms come from the same root as the terms artisan or artist – and both artisans and artists are not concerned with abstract, intellectual and rational truth as in science and mathematics. Rather, artisans and artists create practical works that reflect truth not in an intellectual and rational but intuitive sense reflecting emotion and as an expression of the heart.

Faith, in an orthodox and philosophic sense, is an end in itself divorced from action in that the adoption of correct propositions does not necessarily express itself in proper behavior. One may know (be convinced) or believe that God exists and yet act in a completely immoral manner; conversely, one may know (be convinced) or believe that God does not exist and yet act in a righteous manner. By the way, this is a fundamental problem with the notion of a theological dogma such as Maimonides’ 13 Principles of Faith – the declaration of allegiance to principles of faith reflects an abstract and philosophic conception of faith that is divorced from action, and such a declaration has no practical implications whatsoever.

By contrast, faith in an orthoprax and psychological sense (and this is the Biblical conception) is not an end but a means to achieve the greater goal of proper behavior. Such faith necessarily expresses itself in the greater goal of proper actions revealing psychological and moral character. Thus, if one declares that he or she believes in God, and yet acts immorally, the immoral actions are testimony that such a person does not truly believe in God in a psychological sense of the heart. Such a person may declare philosophically that he or she believes in God, but moral character (in distinction to philosophic knowledge or belief) constituting faith in a psychological sense of the heart is truly revealed only in actions and not philosophic declarations. Conversely, if one declares that he or she does not believe in God, and yet acts morally, the moral actions are testimony that such a person does truly believe in God in a psychological sense of the heart. Such a person may declare philosophically that he or she does not believe in God, but moral character (faith in a psychological sense of the heart) is truly revealed in actions and not philosophic declarations.

Regarding the term faith in the Hebrew Bible, in the case of the verse (Genesis 15, 6) in which it is written of Abraham “and he believed in the Lord”, the context is that God has promised Abraham that he will have a son who will continue his lineage, and Abraham is expressing his own trust in God to fulfill the promise made to him. The verse, though, tells us nothing whatsoever as to whether God actually exists or is truly trustworthy – and, nothing whatsoever about Abraham’s philosophic beliefs. The verse is revealing Abraham’s psychological and moral character (and nothing about the existence or nature of God, and nothing about Abraham’s philosophic beliefs), as indicated in the continuation of the verse, in which Abraham’s faith is “counted to him for righteousness”. If the verse was describing the faith of Abraham in a philosophic sense, then his faith would be counted to him as truth or knowledge and not righteousness. Abraham’s faith is an expression of his moral character and righteousness – the verse “and he believed in the Lord” is an expression of Abraham’s optimistic attitude of hope and trust, and his refusal to despair (in not having children), revealing his righteous character as a person. The term faith in God throughout the Hebrew Bible is used in an orthoprax and psychological sense of trust in, or loyalty to, God that expresses itself in proper behavior or in an optimistic attitude of hope, thankfulness and appreciation.

Regarding the term truth in the Hebrew Bible, in the Book of Nechemiah (9, 33) it is written, “But You are righteous in all that has come upon us, for You have done truth, while we have been wicked”. I have literally translated the phrase “You have done truth” to make clear the psychological nature of the term truth in the verse – the intent is that God has been moral (“But You are righteous”) and faithful (“for You have done truth”) in contrast to the wickedness of the Israelites. The Biblical phrase doing truth means to act faithfully, and clearly implies a psychological (rather than intellectual) conception of truth that necessarily expresses itself in proper behavior. According to an intellectual and rational conception of truth, one can know truth; but, the Biblical phrase doing truth would be incomprehensible since intellectual truth is entirely abstract and divorced from action or deeds.

I want to suggest then that Torah (Judaism) and religion in general are not a matter of cognitive and intellectual truth (like science and mathematics) based upon facts and logic. Rather, religious truth and belief are, like art, a subjective matter of value judgment. Let’s suppose that there are two paintings on a wall, it would be absurd of me to tell you that the painting on the right is true and the painting on the left is false – I can say one of the paintings is beautiful in my eyes and the other not, but I cannot say that one is true and the other false. The same is true of religions. Religions do not make cognitive claims that are meant to be verified or proven as true or false, like scientific claims. In my eyes, tradition and ritual are the poetry and beauty (and not truth) of religion that give meaning and purpose to life, and without tradition and ritual Judaism and religion in general would be very dry and sterile.

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Jeffrey Radon

Author of orthopraxjudaism.com

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