Oct 23, 2023 Jan Katzew

By Rabbi Jan Katzew

Educators are not spectators. We are servants, not owners, of truth. We acknowledge our partiality, our subjectivity, and our uncertainty as human beings.

As servants of truth, educators in the trenchant phrase of Parker Palmer, require “the courage to teach,” to take a moral stand, to defy the post-modern trend of moral relativism, and state unequivocally that some actions are not only wrong; they are evil. Moral courage animates teaching by exposing students to the soul of the teacher.

Educators would benefit from our own version of the Hippocratic Oath: First, do no harm. Educators have the power to cause moral injury, to wound our students’ ability to make moral judgments. In the aftermath of the worst day in Israel’s history, moral ambiguity is an abdication of moral authority. Instead, every educator, and especially every Israel educator, ought to see themselves as moral educators with the aim of facilitating moral clarity. There is no moral equivalence between a pogrom intended to massacre, rape, and kidnap people because they are Jews and a military response to the pogrom that unintentionally causes the deaths of innocent civilians. There is no moral equivalence between terrorists using human shields and combatants protecting a civilian population. To teach otherwise is to perpetrate educational malpractice and cause moral injury.

For most of human history, people believed that the earth was at the center of the universe. Although there remain people who share this belief centuries after it has been discredited and disproven, the people who cling to it represent a lunatic or in this case, a geocentric fringe. The consequences of holding this contrafactual position are minimal. The truth of a heliocentric solar system is safe and secure. Educators need not be overly concerned about students who defend the Ptolemaic System against the Copernican Revolution. Other scientific truths continue to be challenged and denied with graver consequences, e.g., the utility of vaccines to reduce, if not to eradicate diseases. However, the greatest threats to truth in education are in the social sciences, especially history and ethics. People who deny the Holocaust not only deny an historical truth, but they also deny an ethical truth. They are not only intellectually and historically wrong; they are profoundly, ethically evil. History educators are moral educators and vice versa.

In the words of the Greek playwright Aeschylus, “In war, truth is the first casualty.” We are witnesses to a tragic, timeless truth. Academic intelligence and moral intelligence are independent variables. Elite institutions of higher education such as Harvard, Yale, Stanford, and Columbia produce graduates with prodigious intellectual capacities. However, they are failing to engender moral development. Instead, they are tolerating and, in the most egregious cases, propagating moral equivalency between the truth of barbaric atrocities committed by terrorists and the responses to those same atrocities. Free speech is not free. Free speech comes with the responsibility to serve truth.

Educators are responsible for teaching students how to think for themselves, how to make moral judgments—entrusting them to distinguish and differentiate between good and evil. Indoctrinators tell students what to think, prejudicing them instead of trusting them, thereby negating their ability to make moral judgments. Educators are responsible to learn and teach historical and ethical truths with integrity, clarity, and humility.

The core mission of education has always been character formation, and in the digital age, when information is readily, if not universally, accessible, it is the ability to process and assess information that has paramount meaning and value. What are the dispositions educators aim to nurture in our students? How can educators model the dispositions we aim to develop in our students? We respond to these questions every time we teach.

We model integrity when our words are translated into deeds. We model clarity when we explain why we think what we think and do what we do. We model humility when we admit that we could always be wrong. It is the task of an educator to excavate and shed light on the truth so that students can examine it, analyze it, and make it meaningful. What does it mean to serve truth? The Hebrew word for truth, אמת, emet, is comprised of the first, middle, and last letters of the Hebrew Aleph-bet. Truth is comprehensive, all-inclusive, and often inconvenient. The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth is beyond human capacity. We can only know our truth. Our Sages understood this limitation when they considered the creation of human beings:

וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים נַעֲשֶׂה אָדָם בְּצַלְמֵנוּ כִּדְמוּתֵנוּ

And God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, after our likeness. (Genesis 1:26)

In rabbinic language, the verse says דרשני (darsheni)—Explain me, make meaning from me! Whom or what did God consult in creating humankind? Who is the “us” in the sentence? The first-person plural is reiterated in the second stitch of the verse after “our” likeness.

אָמַר רַבִּי סִימוֹן, בְּשָׁעָה שֶׁבָּא הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא לִבְרֹאת אֶת אָדָם הָרִאשׁוֹן, נַעֲשׂוּ מַלְאֲכֵי הַשָּׁרֵת כִּתִּים כִּתִּים, וַחֲבוּרוֹת חֲבוּרוֹת, מֵהֶם אוֹמְרִים אַל יִבָּרֵא, וּמֵהֶם אוֹמְרִים יִבָּרֵא, הֲדָא הוּא דִכְתִיב (תהלים פה, יא): חֶסֶד וֶאֱמֶת נִפְגָּשׁוּ צֶדֶק וְשָׁלוֹם נָשָׁקוּ.

חֶסֶד אוֹמֵר יִבָּרֵא, שֶׁהוּא גּוֹמֵל חֲסָדִים.

וֶאֱמֶת אוֹמֵר אַל יִבָּרֵא, שֶׁכֻּלּוֹ שְׁקָרִים.

צֶדֶק אוֹמֵר יִבָּרֵא, שֶׁהוּא עוֹשֶׂה צְדָקוֹת.

שָׁלוֹם אוֹמֵר אַל יִבָּרֵא, דְּכוּלֵיהּ קְטָטָה.

מֶה עָשָׂה הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא נָטַל אֱמֶת וְהִשְׁלִיכוֹ לָאָרֶץ, הֲדָא הוּא דִכְתִיב (דניאל ח, יב): וְתַשְׁלֵךְ אֱמֶת אַרְצָה, אָמְרוּ מַלְאֲכֵי הַשָּׁרֵת לִפְנֵי הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא, רִבּוֹן הָעוֹלָמִים מָה אַתָּה מְבַזֶּה תַּכְסִיס אַלְטִיכְסְיָה שֶׁלָּךְ, תַּעֲלֶה אֱמֶת מִן הָאָרֶץ, הֲדָא הוּא דִכְתִיב (תהלים פה, יב): אֱמֶת מֵאֶרֶץ תִּצְמָח.

Rabbi Simon said: When the Holy One of Blessing came to create Adam the first human, the ministering angels divided into various factions and various groups. Some of them were saying: ‘Let the human not be created,’ and some of them were saying: ‘Let the human be created.’ That is what is written: “Kindness and truth met; righteousness and peace touched” (Psalms 85:11).

Kindness said: ‘Let the human be created, as one who performs acts of kindness.’

Truth said: ‘Let the human not be created, as one who is all full of lies.’

Righteousness said: ‘Let the human be created, as one who performs acts of righteousness.’

Peace said: ‘Let the human not be created, as one who is all full of discord.’

What did the Holy One of Blessing do? God took Truth and cast it down to earth. That is what is written: “You cast truth earthward” (Daniel 8:12). The ministering angels said before the Holy One of Blessing: ‘Master of the universe, why are You demeaning Your very seal? Let Truth ascend from the earth.’ That is what is written: “Truth will spring from the earth” (Psalms 85:12).  [Genesis Rabba 8:5]

Kindness and Righteousness advocated for human creation. Truth and Peace advised God not to create a human being. How did God resolve the tie between the competing dispositions? By throwing Truth to the ground. The midrash continues with God noting that the debate was ultimately academic, for the human was already created. Human beings do not have access to absolute truth. We are all partial—תרתי משמע—in both senses of the word ‘partial’. We only have our part of the whole truth, and we are all biased, prisoners of our own experience. Nevertheless, our humanity is largely defined by the moral judgments we make and our identity as educators is largely defined by our ability to nurture moral judgments in our students, who represent the future of our people and all peoples.

I have yet to understand fully the words ברוך דיין האמת—Barukh Dayan HaEmet—“Blessed is the True Judge”, words that the Rabbis of the Mishnah and Talmud teach us to recite upon hearing bad news, especially about the death of someone close to us.  At this moment, we can leave absolute truth to the divine realm. Our educational goal is moral clarity. When we encounter tragedy, awful, dreadful news, the least and best we can do is bear witness and serve truth.

Rabbi Jan Katzew is a senior consultant to The iCenter.