Truth and Fiction, Part 1

At the seder last night someone asked me, “So, did Moses really part the Red Sea?” Totally unprepared and not sure what to answer, all I could think of to say was, “Of course not, God did.” Kind of an evasive response, actually, but I was on the spot.

I’ve been getting these kinds of question a lot lately since it came out I’m going to be attending rabbinical school. The assumptions of knowledge and competency they imply can be disconcerting on occasion, but it does keep me on my toes. But it did occur to me later that this question, or some version of it, has been asked at every seder I’ve been to, and that made me wonder if that says something interesting about us and our relation to the holiday.

I mentioned this to my wife this morning, and what she said pretty much hits the nail on head, I think: “They want to know if they’ve been fooled by religion.” And don’t we all, really? This comment greatly reminded me of the way Emmanuel Levinas begins the preface to his great work on ethics, Totality and Infinity: “Everyone will readily agree that it is of the highest importance to know whether we are not duped by morality.” Same question.

It’s a common question, in fact, a question that has been floating around like an angry hornet in the room ever since the advent of modernity. In fact, it may be precisely this question which constitutes the distinction between “we moderns” and the era that came before us. None of us can escape it, from the skeptic who’s been stung by the hornet one too many times to the fundamentalist whose attempts to ignore it invest every word and deed with a crazed intensity that his ancient forbears would never have recognized as their own. No one can sleep in a room with an angry wasp and none of us can feel totally comfortable with this question buzzing around.

I think the crux of this anxiety revolves around the diverging paths that Fact and Value have taken over the past several hundred years. This is a horribly oversimplified way of putting things, I know, but I would argue that whereas Fact and Value used to form two sides of a single concept known as Truth, the whole story of the past half millenium or so has been about the two breaking apart in uncomfortable and destabilizing ways and various more or less unsuccessful attempts to bring them back together.

More on this later. In the meantime, if anyone wants to weigh in, please post a comment here on my blog or Facebook. It would seriously make my day.

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