In the wake of the 2016 U.S. elections, social commentators have been referring to our current age as the era of “post-truth”. While this is disconcerting, it is not shocking. After all, “post-truth” seems to be a natural progression from the previous “era” that was called “post-modernism”. Post-modernism encouraged us to view all “narratives” as equally legitimate, reflecting an approach that blurs distinctions between truth and falsehood, and as a consequence, between good and evil. “Post-truth” simply took this outlook a bit further, contending that truth and falsehood are of no consequence in the political/historical discourse.
We should be very concerned about “post-modernism” and “post-truth”. The ability to distinguish between truth and falsehood and between good and evil are the cornerstones of a free and democratic society.
Yet, in considering this issue, I became troubled that perhaps the concept of the legitimacy of multiple narratives is supported by Jewish tradition. After all, doesn’t parshanut hamikra (Biblical exegesis) present us with different legitimate narratives of the same events? Similarly, are not the derivations of Jewish laws from Biblical texts guided by the famous Talmudic dictum “eilu ve-eilu divrei elokim hayim” (lit. “these and these are the words of the living G-d)? Are not differing, and at times opposing, views given equal legitimacy?
The great Biblical commentator, Ibn Ezra, dealt with the concept of multiple truths in the introduction to his commentary on the Torah. Ibn Ezra identifies 5 methods of explaining the Torah, and places them in a schema in which there is a central point and four concentric circles at different distances from the central point, which in his opinion represents the truth. Three methods – the the literal approach of the Karaites (who rejected the oral tradition), the allegorical approach, and verbose approach of the philosophers – are the three methods that are respectively furthest away from the central point. In other words, the opinions of these approaches, while perhaps reflecting other truths, can hardly be related to or legitimized by the Biblical text. The circle closest to the central point is identified by Ibn Ezra as the midrashim. Yet, as he points out, some midrashim are farther from the central point and others are closer. This point is better understood when he goes on to explain the central point as pshuto shel mikra – the simple meaning of the text – which, in Ibn Ezra’s approach, represents a close reading of the text using a combination of grammar and context. Ibn Ezra states clearly that such an approach can yield multiple understandings that have legitimacy – shivim panim laTorah (there are seventy faces to the Torah). In the marketplace of ideas, all other things being equal, Ibn Ezra gives weight to the tradition – i.e. the opinions favored by the Sages. In other words, Ibn Ezra recognizes the legitimacy of Rabbinic midrashim that are based on a close reading of the text.
We might summarize Ibn Ezra’s approach as follows: In the Torah discourse, the Torah text provides a set narrative that is the basis for interpretation by commentators. The interpretations of the Torah text are equally legitimate to the degree that they are based on a close reading of the text. Thus, for example, the Torah tells us that the Jewish people came to Egypt with a protected minority status, but subsequently were enslaved and oppressed by the Egyptians. The commentators debate other elements of the story, such as whether the enslavement of the Jews developed progressively (Ibn Ezra) or was a planned program (Ramban). These commentaries represent valid competing interpretations as they both emerge from the Torah’s narrative. A commentator could not claim, however, that the Jews were never enslaved in Egypt, as that would represent a distortion of the Torah’s narrative.
The same is true of the historical/political discourse. We must make a distinction between historical fact and historical interpretation. There are historical facts that occurred and are thus by nature true. The fact that Hitler perpetrated the deaths of 6 million Jews as a final solution to Jewish existence is historical fact. Historians debate whether Hitler’s final solution developed progressively (functionalists) or was planned (intentionalists). Yet, Holocaust denial is not a legitimate narrative – it is a distortion of historical fact. Similarly, claiming that the Jews have no connection to Jerusalem or that Israel is an apartheid state are not valid narratives – they are distortions of facts.
A researcher on the impact of “fake news” on the U.S. elections, who was recently interviewed on “60 Minutes”, reported that to his surprise, fake news affected young college educated people to the same degree that it influenced a population with less formal education. Whether this is surprising or not, it should be a matter of great concern to educators.
How, then, can we educate our students to be citizens of a free and democratic society against the backdrop of “post-modernism” and “post-truth”? We must develop their independent ability to critically read sources and events, and to assess their validity. This is best achieved through the development of higher order thinking skills (HOTS), which include analysis, application, and assessment. In the teaching of Chumash, for example, students should not be presented with Rashi’s commentary as “the” valid interpretation of the Biblical narrative. Rather, they should encounter multiple interpretations, be asked to analyze and compare their relationship to the Biblical text, and to assess the degree to which they are convincing in their eyes. HOTS should similarly be employed in other disciplines as well, including the studies of literature, history, and current events. In this way, we can help our students to critically analyze and assess historical texts and contemporary news reports – to distinguish between truth and falsehood, and between good and evil. In this way, they can contribute to the preservation of a free and democratic society.