The concept of ‘truth’ is a recurring theme in religious and philosophical discourse. In the Torah, specifically the Five Books of Moses, the term is sparingly used, yet its instances of use shed light on the dual understanding of truth: the moral-spiritual truth and the empirical factual truth.
Truth as Moral-Spiritual Principle
In several passages, ‘truth’, or in Hebrew אֱמֶת, is closely associated with kindness and moral uprightness. Take Genesis 47:29, where Jacob, sensing the approach of death, urges his son Joseph to show him kindness and truth by ensuring he isn’t buried in Egypt. The intertwining of kindness and truth suggests a moral truth – an act that is right, steadfast, and reliable. Similarly, when Jacob acknowledges God’s benevolence towards him, he references both the kindness and the truth shown to him (Genesis 32:10).
The association extends beyond Jacob. When Eliezer seeks a bride for Isaac, Abraham’s son, he pleads for God’s continued kindness and truth (Genesis 24:27). Later, he speaks of being on the ‘true path’ – a moral path of righteousness that would lead him to Rebecca, the chosen bride for Isaac (Genesis 24:48).
Exodus furthers this association, presenting God as a deity replete with mercy, compassion, kindness, and truth (Exodus 34:6). Even when selecting leaders, the qualities sought are those who fear God and are ‘people of truth’, emphasizing the moral and righteous aspect of truth (Exodus 18:21).
Truth as Empirical Fact
Deuteronomy offers a shift in perspective. In Deuteronomy 13:15 and 17:4, the narrative centers around the grave sin of idolatry. Here, ‘truth’ takes on a more empirical dimension. Before any punitive action is taken, there must be irrefutable evidence that the abomination has indeed occurred. The Talmud, in Sanhedrin 40a, 89A, 30A and Makkot 1A to 2A, underscores the immense significance of rigorous investigation before judgment, especially when the outcome might be as severe as death.
The verses stipulate a methodical process: testimonies, careful inquiries, and the verification of claims. The emphasis is clear: empirical truths demand thorough verification. One witness isn’t enough; two are required, underscoring the weight the Torah places on empirical truth (Deuteronomy 17:6).
Conclusion: The Two Truths of the Torah
What emerges from the Torah is a delineation between two types of truth. One, a moral-spiritual truth, is an unwavering belief or principle. It is subjective yet foundational for faith and moral conduct. The second is empirical truth, rooted in evidence and verification, essential when actions, especially punitive ones, are in question.
The Torah’s distinction between these truths provides profound insight into human cognition and behavior. Just as the Torah doesn’t conflate the two, humans, too must recognize the difference between personal, moral beliefs and factual realities that demand empirical evidence. As seekers of truth, understanding and respecting this distinction is vital in both spiritual pursuits and worldly matters.