Different Versions of the Truth

Sermon delivered November 2, 2007, by Rabbi Barry H. D. Block

According to the Koran, the Holy Scripture of Islam, Abraham is commanded to sacrifice his eldest son, Ishmael. The “rock,” the one in the Dome of the Rock, on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, is the place upon which Islam understands the patriarch of all Arabs to have been bound by his father.

In Torah, of course, Isaac is the son tied to the altar. The place, though, is essentially the same: the spot upon which the Holy of Holies was constructed, when the Temple stood on the Temple Mount.

Years ago, I heard a knowledgeable and otherwise sensitive Orthodox Rabbi describe the Koran as “a fabrication.” If the Torah is historically accurate, then the Koran’s account of Abraham’s binding his son cannot be. Torah is the older book, by a millennium, give or take. There’s no question that Islam got the story from us, as it were. My Orthodox colleague had a point.

Our own life experience, though, teaches us to look at the matter differently.

One family is invited to the home of another. The kids are playing in one room, while the adults enjoy themselves in another. The seven year old son of the host comes to the adults, crying. The guests’ eleven year old daughter has closed him out of his own room, slamming the door on his foot. He did nothing to deserve it. Upon examination, the pre-teen says that she had no idea that the boy’s foot was in the way, but if it was, that was because he was intruding on her phone conversation, annoying her. Back to the boy: “What? We were in the middle of a game, and she suddenly stopped playing, started talking on the phone, and went into my room. I followed. It’s my room!”

Neither child is lying. In fact, both are telling the truth. To be more specific, both are telling the truth about the same set of circumstances. Each experienced the event entirely differently, so their truths conflict.

Two second cousins are catching up. They swap stories told to them years earlier by their respective grandmothers, who were sisters. All of a sudden, one of the cousins begins to frown, as he listens to a story his cousin tells. Finally, he can take it no longer. He says: “I know that story, but it didn’t happen to your grandmother; it happened to my grandmother!” The grandmothers and all of their generation are deceased. Which grandmother was really involved in the incident? Who is telling the truth?

Back to Abraham: Torah was written, but that was long before printing presses. Much of the world was unfamiliar with Torah. Being nomadic, most of the Arab world relied on stories transmitted orally, rather than through the written word. Who is to say that Arabs and Israelites hadn’t been telling the same story, with slightly different characters, for millennia? Need the Koran be a fabrication, in order for Torah to be true?

We should not be surprised that interpretations of tonight’s Torah portion vary so widely. According to the Koran, God promised the Holy Land to Abraham, and inheritance goes through the first-born son – in this case, Ishmael. Imagine a Muslim view of Torah’s explanation that the Land comes to belong to the second son, and then to his second son. Viewed from the outside, the Torah seems to bend over backwards, twisting itself into a pretzel, to portray the Land as the eternal possession of the Jewish people.

When the Tri-Faith and Palestinian Jewish Dialogues were active in San Antonio, one of their chief successes was in getting groups of people together, simply to hear each person’s truth. More often than not, listening was the hard part. Another person’s truth, so different from the story I know, may suggest that the version I have heard all my life, the sacred narrative that gives meaning to my life, must be false.

So I tell my Muslim friend about the terror experienced by my own family in the summer of 2006. Shells, shot by Hezbollah from Lebanon, were falling down all around them and their neighbors in northern Israel. My relatives are peaceniks, for lack of a better term. They believe strongly in a two-state solution, that Jews and Arabs should live peacefully, side by side. They do not live in Occupied Territory, but in Israel proper. Every sovereign state has not only the right, but the responsibility, to protect its citizens. Of course, the Israeli military had to take any means necessary to stop the bombing.

Then, my Muslim friend speaks of the horrors experienced by friends of friends in southern Lebanon. They, too, yearn for peace, and think that Jews and Palestinians can live side by side. They support Lebanese leaders who have tried to expel Hezbollah. But they found themselves on the receiving end of Israeli artillery. Their home was destroyed. They fled. They were terrorized by a Jewish army. How can I say that the Israeli response, killing and injuring so many innocents, was justified?

Neither side is lying.

Sometimes, we do have to stand by our own, even when we realize that others offer an equally valid truth. If we aren’t on the side of our own brothers and sisters, when they are justified, then who will be there?

At other times, our best effort will be expended in helping “our side” to understand an alternative truth. Yes, we support Israel, even in actions we wish we could oppose, like erecting security fences and targeting terrorist leaders for assassination. Lesser action has proven ineffective at preventing terrorists from murdering countless Israeli innocents. At the same time, we must hear, and we must repeat, the truths of Palestinians who are not terrorists, but whose homes have been demolished for administrative reasons; or who lack access to their own olive trees, which may be their only livelihood.

One warning: We must not permit our acknowledgement of various truths to become embrace of falsehood.

Not long ago, the San Antonio Express-News published a column by Mansour O. El-Kikhia, about the President of Iran. The columnist claimed that the only reason that Americans would not welcome President Ahmadinejad during his visit was that his government does not recognize Israel. Dr. El-Kikhia was lying, and he knew it. Like it or not, the United States enjoys friendly relationships with a host of nations that do not recognize Israel, not the least of them Saudi Arabia, a close ally of our country. The President of Iran is singled out because he brutally oppresses his own people; he denies the Holocaust; he is developing nuclear weapons, in defiance of the international community; and he has threatened to destroy Israel, killing every Jewish man, woman and child there. Mansour O. El-Kikhia is a liar, beneath the dignity of our otherwise fine local newspaper.

No different version of the truth exists to support claims that the Holocaust did not happen, or was less than we know it to be.

No alternative truth undergirds conspiracy theories about September 11, insinuating that the tragedy was self-inflicted or was brought about by evil Jews.

Nobody may truthfully claim that Hamas and Hezbollah are not terrorist organizations, funded by the Holocaust deniers and would-be destroyers of Israel now in charge in Iran.

None should dispute that Jews have been deeply connected to the Land of Israel for millennia, even as other peoples also embrace the same land.

Let us distinguish between truth and lies, even as we acknowledge that honesty may tell more than one tale. Let us embrace all real versions of the truth, and let us learn from them. And may our honest acknowledgements lead us, and the entire world, to peace.


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