Do Jews Have a Different Notion of Truth?

In a Friday, Feb. 9, 2018 photo, a 300-year-old Torah scroll, center, stands next to two newer versions of the torah and was gifted to the University of Pittsburgh Hillel Jewish student organization at the Hillel Jewish University Center. The scroll was hidden during the Nazi Holocaust and was smuggled out of communist Poland, then served at New Castle congregation for decades until the synagogue's closing. (Antonella Crescimbeni/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette via AP)

A television interview with a prominent Polish Catholic intellectual raised hackles in the Jewish world today. The Times of Israel reports:

Henryk Zielinski, editor-in-chief of the Catholic weekly Idziemy, said this on February 24 during an interview with TVP, according to the complaint that the Union of Jewish Communities in Poland filed on Monday with Poland’s National Council of Radio and Television. Jews have “a completely different system of values, a different concept of truth,” Zielinski said. “For us, the truth corresponds to facts. For the Jew, truth means something that conforms to his understanding of what’s beneficial. If a Jew is religious, then truth means something God wants.”

Here is a longer version of Fr. Zielinski’s argument, from a blog post on his website:

In Greek-Roman civilization, truth is the compatibility of our thinking and speaking with the facts and the objective state of reality. The truth is revealed as existing regardless of our will and acceptance. In Jewish culture, truth is intentional-moral. What is considered right and subordinated to good is true. The untrue will be what does not serve him, even if it is justified in facts.

The ultimate point of reference in distinguishing the truth from falsehood is for the religious Jew the highest good which is God. For an unbelieving man, but stuck in the Jewish mentality, this is the point of reference of his own “I”, which will result in the recognition that everyone has their own truth. For the Zionist, the criterion of recognizing something as true will be the good of the Jews and the State of Israel. (Emphasis added)

Judaism, to be sure, follows a divine command ethics (one follows God’s will because it is God’s will), while the Church (for the most part) argues that its ethical doctrine is founded in the natural law which can be understood by human reason. But it is nonsense to suggest that Judaism invents “the truth.”

Zielinsky’s nose is out of joint because some Jewish leaders have made an issue of Polish complicity in the Holocaust — as he explains clearly in the same post.

It is Zielinsky who doesn’t like certain facts because he can’t bear to think about them. Anyone who imagines that Jews don’t acknowledge facts prejudicial to them should read Jeremiah.

One indicator of the Jewish regard for the truth is the contribution of Jews in fields where the truth is hardest to dispute, namely science. According to Wikipedia, Jews have won 172 Nobel Prizes in scientific fields: 35 in physics, 54 in chemistry, 54 in medicine, and 29 and in economics. 320 Christians have won Nobel Prizes in the four “scientific” categories. Of these, Catholics have won 10 in physics, 10 in chemistry, 16 in medicine and 1 in economics.

The number of Jews is tiny compared to the number of Catholics, so the 4:1 ratio of Jewish to Catholic Nobelists in science is noteworthy.

It appears from Wikipedia that the last Polish Gentile to win a Nobel in science was Madame Curie in 1911. There have been many great Polish scientists, to be sure, including Marian Rejewski and his colleagues who broke the German Ultra code years before the British. Nonetheless, facts are facts.

I do not believe that Jews are smarter than Catholics in some genetic sense (I have little time for genetic theories of intelligence in general), but there must be an explanation for such a disparity. Here is a conjecture: Torah study for Jews is the definitive religious activity, an investigation into the infinite mind of God (there is a fine article by Rabbi Meir Soloveitchik on the subject).

But there is more to it than the utilitarian application of study habits learned from religion. In classic rabbinic thought, God deliberately left Creation unfinished, and man has the obligation to become God’s partner in completing the work of Creation. To transform nature in a way that advances the dignity of humankind is a religious obligation.

This is very different from the Aristotelian idea of the natural order which the medieval Church adopted, and far closer to the spirit of the 17th Century Scientific Revolution that overthrew Aristotelian physics. Those interested in the contrast between the Greek and rabbinic outlook might consult the great Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik’s book The Halakhic Mind. I published a survey of the issue in 2016 in the Jewish journal Hakirah. Just as understanding the mind of God is an infinite labor of discovery, so is uncovering the secrets of nature.

Contrary to Fr. Zielinski’s ill-informed and prejudicial comments, the Jewish concept of man’s relationship to God and nature helps explain the improbable success of Jews in the sciences.

Of course, no rational argument will persuade those who are determined to denigrate the Jews. But the facts, such as they are, may be of interest to others.