For decades Biblical scholars have questioned the veracity of the Exodus. There is little or no evidence unearthed by archaeologists to confirm that the Scriptural story is historical. And yet Jews around the world will sit around the Passover seder table and recall and re-enact the familiar events of the Exodus that are as real to us as the events of yesterday.
Rather than dismissing the Passover seder as no more than another example of religious delusion, I have long taught that there is an important difference between “facts” and “Truth.” Facts are amoral. That is to say, there is no moral valence to facts. They are neither good nor bad. Facts convey information. They describe things as they are. Truth, however, is different. Truth carries with it moral weight. It describes things as they ought to be. Consider Aesop’s Fables. No one really believes that the animals of the forest convene every so often to arrange for races among themselves, discuss the parameters, and cheer on the competitors. Everyone knows that neither tortoises nor hares talk to each other, if at all. But everyone agrees that there is Truth to the moral that “slow and steady wins the race.” In other words, Aesop’s Fables are not factual, even though they are – judged by the lesson – true.
I was delighted to read that a new book has just been published that substantiates my view.
John D’Agata submitted a fifteen-page article for publication and fact-checker Jim Fingal was assigned to review the project. The series of exchanges resulting from Fingal’s staggeringly meticulous annotations are published as a thoughtful debate on what is Truth under the title The Lifespan of a Fact. Fingal has set for himself one simple task to assure the readers that everything that the author writes is accurate. And everything means everything: each excruciating detail. D’Agata has a different purpose. He wants to tell a compelling story: not just about the suicide of a boy in Las Vegas in 2002, but about the human condition. In pursuit of telling that larger story, he feels no need worry about the proper name of a local saloon or the correct colour of a fleet of dog-grooming vans. After all, he is an essayist, not a reporter. It would not have affected the message one bit if the facts were incorrect.
To a degree, our sympathies should lie with Fingal rather than D’Agata. Playing fast and loose with the facts seems cavalier or even dishonest. Yet our tradition insists that one of the pillars upon which the world stands is truth. And Truth, in the form of the grand ideas of freedom, justice, and compassion transcends the facts. So we will read the Haggadah and celebrate Passover with the expectation of learning some powerful truths rather than ascertaining historical facts.