Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things
To put it mildly, it’s unusual for a rabbi to begin his Yom Kippur sermon by quoting the Christian Bible. The Torah, the High Holiday machzor, the Talmud, even the Big Book of Jewish Humor (which I’ve done). But Saint Paul? Really? Well, as we say at Hillel, we are distinctively Jewish and universally human. Chalk this up to the latter half.
But seriously folks, this is not a gratuitous quote from Paul’s Epistle to the Phillippians. Quaecumque Sunt Vera – Whatsoever things are true. These are the words on the seal of Northwestern University. They are the very motto of this place. And they come from this verse of St. Paul. “Whatsoever things are true: think on these things.”
Northwestern adopted these words as its motto in 1890. Presumably the trustees wanted Northwestern to be dedicated to truth. Harvard’s motto was veritas, truth; Yale’s was lux et veritas, light and truth. Northwestern, like other universities, was and remains about learning truth, searching for truth, knowing truth, and living by truth.
Of course we have a word for this in Hebrew, and it is emet. Emet in Hebrew is as powerful as truth is in English. The book of Deuteronomy refers to judges who “inquire, probe, and investigate thoroughly” (13:15) to arrive at truth. The Talmud goes further and determines that judges must actually perform seven separate inquiries to ascertain the truth in a case. They must check and check and check again. They must interrogate witnesses and check all the facts. They must be absolutely certain in their judgments. They must be true.
So finding the truth can be hard work. Like a science experiment or an archaeological dig, the truth is there to be discovered, and it must be measured and investigated and probed before we can be certain. In this conception, truth stands outside us, and we must use our tools of historical and scientific inquiry to find and verify it.
But there is another kind of truth, one that doesn’t stand outside us, but which emerges from within us. This is the truth of belief. This is the truth that tells us that our family and friends will be there for us when we need them. It is the truth that says we can always come home. It is the truth we experience when we tell the story of the Exodus at Pesach. It is the truth we rely on today, Yom Kippur—the truth that God will always forgive, if only we will return.
“Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach,” Moses says. “It is not up in heaven, so that you have to ask, ‘Who will go up into heaven to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, so that you have to ask, ‘Who will cross the sea to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?’ No: ki karov elecha ha-davar me’od. The word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it.”
This kind of truth is not scientific. It cannot be proven by our tools of critical analysis. It is belief, to be sure, but no more so than the belief we have in science or history. It is true. It is emet.
This kind of truth, the truth we live in all the time, the truth without which our world would cease to be meaningful—this kind of truth is, by and large, not the kind of truth we talk about at the university. For from virtually the moment Professor Daniel Bonbright wrote the words “Whatsoever things are true” into the seal of Northwestern in 1890, the idea of truth itself has been fraught with questions and difficulties. Science continually disproves its theories; history upends our understandings; sociology and psychology and neurobiology show us that the very things we take for granted in the world aren’t as simple, as seemingly truthful, as they seem.
And so we are plagued by doubt. Nothing is as it seems, and whatever we think we know—we worry we will soon come to see, as George Gershwin memorably wrote, “It ain’t necessarily so.”
The roots of this conundrum go back a long way. The earliest moments of modernity owe their inception to doubters. Descartes, Montaigne, and our very own Baruch Spinoza—the philosophers you study at the beginning of intro to modern philosophy, who lived 400 and 500 years ago—all began by doubting what was.
Is the world really like everyone tells me it is? Maybe it’s different. That was their fundamental and earth-shattering question. They thought outside the box. And as they did so, the box itself started to quiver and shake, to stretch and to crumble, until the whole way we approached the world changed. Science, economics, politics, art, music, religion—everything that was inside the box was suddenly exposed to doubt.
Things didn’t have to be as they had been; they could be different. Nation-states, democracies, capitalism; Beethoven, Madonna, Jackson Pollock; Reform Judaism, Hasidism, Zionism—they all came about because of doubt. They came about because people asked, “What’s not true about the world I live in?” What amazing things doubt can create!
And yet, here’s the part I think we too often forget. These people, and the people who brought us these incredible things, didn’t stop when the doubt ended. They didn’t stop with the question, What’s false? No, they went on, and they asked an equally important question: Now that I know what’s false, what do I know is true? If I know what is fake, what is real? If I know what I can’t believe in, what will I believe in? If I know what isn’t true, what is true?
Somewhere along the way, I fear, we stopped asking that question. We stopped asking “What is true?” In our search for truth at the university, we allowed our doubts to cannibalize our truths, instead of clarify them. We got so good at asking what is false? that we forgot how to ask what is true?. While our doubting was motivated by a search for truth, we stopped believing that truth could ever be found.
And so we stopped even looking for truth. We focused instead on things we can measure, things we feel like we can know. If you stopped by the undergraduate majors fair, where all the departments have tables to meet prospective majors, you could see the results: the lines for economics, the business certificate program, engineering—these were out the door. The lines at English, Slavic, Jewish Studies: there were no lines. You can’t measure the value of the humanities. And if truth doesn’t exist, then what’s the point of studying things that can’t be quantified?
To be sure, there is truth to be found in economics and business and engineering. I don’t mean to knock those disciplines. But the essence of liberal education is the belief that the quantitative must be made meaningful through the qualitative, that the hard truths of science must be enriched by the search for the deep truths of human experience. Whatever your major, whatever your discipline, there is deeper truth, richer truth, to be found.
The Torah anticipated all of this. It is not in heaven! Rather ki karov elecha ha-davar me’od—truth is very close to us, if only we will look with open minds and listen with open hearts. If only we will stop to ask, “What is true?” Truth is there. We simply have to be looking for it.
I’m reminded of a story a friend of mine likes to tell about an art professor at a university a lot like this one. Every morning he would eat breakfast with his young daughter, and then he would go off to work. One morning, when she was four or five years old, she asked him, “Daddy, what do you do at work all day?” He told her, “I teach grownups how to draw.” The girl paused for a minute and then, with a confused look on her face she said, “Did they forget?”
How much we forget as we grow up. While becoming an adult is of course about discarding old truths, it is also about finding new ones. And it is about coming to a more nuanced understanding of some of the same truths we knew when we were children. Becoming an adult cannot only be about rejecting what is false. It must also be about finding, and sometimes rediscovering, what is true.
Because if we fail to do this, we encounter a world without meaning, a world without a center, a world completely fragmented and disintegrated. Disintegration is something we do amazingly well here at the university. We create schools. We create departments. We create subdepartments and subspecialities within subdepartments, which are inside departments inside a school.
All of which can be good. But unless we try to pull together all this fragmented knowledge, unless we ask, “What is true?” our knowledge, our world, and our selves, remain dis-integrated. If we stop at the question, “What is false?” we remain disintegrated, incomplete, fragmented.
But when we ask, “What is true?” we change the game. We start to see a frame for the puzzle. We start to see that things can fit together, and that our knowledge, our selves, and our world can have meaning. Instead of disintegration, we have integration. And instead of fragmentation, we have integrity.
Integrity, sheleimut, shalom — begins by asking “What is true?”
So here we are on Yom Kippur. Here we are on the day when we say in our amidah, v’taher libeinu l’avdekha b’emet—God, make our hearts pure so that we may serve You in truth. Yom Kippur is our annual reset button. It is the day when all becomes possible, because we can let go: of our mistakes, of our inadequacies, of our doubts. It is a day when we can start over, when we can learn from our shortcomings and we can make a change. It is the ultimate day of freedom, because we’re not trapped. On Yom Kippur, we can challenge our own doubts with our truths: the truth of sheleimut, of integrity and wholeness; the truth of teshuva, of real, honest change; the truth of mechila, of forgiveness and letting go; the truth of kapara, of atonement, of starting over, of rebirth.
Today on Yom Kippur we recommit ourselves to these basic truths: the truth that life is about more than money, that life is made meaningful precisely by the things we cannot quantify; the truth of family, the truth of community, the truth of tzedakah; the truth of gemilut chasadim, of doing kindness; the truth of am Yisrael, of the Jewish people throughout time and around the world; the truth that we are all created b’tzelem elohim, in God’s image.
And today on Yom Kippur we recommit ourselves to a learning based in truth. In our learning this year, we will ask “What is false? What do I suspect? What do I need to investigate?” We will be rigorous and thorough in our research and in our thinking. We will analyze and dissect and take apart.
But this year, we will remember that after doubt comes faith. After we ask “what is false?” we will ask “What is true?” After we ask, “What do I suspect?” we will ask, “What do I trust?” After we analyze, we will synthesize. After we dissect, we will reassemble. After we take apart, we will put back together.
These things are emet, these things are true.
I bless us all this year with a year of knowledge, of insight, of understanding, of the courage to put aside childish things. And I bless us with a year of good questions, of genuine exploration, and of the courage not only to doubt, but to trust—the courage to ask not only “What is false?” but also, “What is true?”
Gemar chatima tova – may we all be sealed in the book of truth and life today.