On Aug. 16, The New York Times joined about 350 other American newspapers in editorializing about our critical need to protect our freedom of the press, to end our national disgrace of branding journalists “enemies of the people,” to stop the dangerous and corrosive practice of labeling uncomfortable realities “fake news.”
The Times began its editorial by quoting Thomas Jefferson’s letter to a friend in 1787: “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate for a moment to prefer the latter.”
The last sentence of the editorial reads: “We’re all in this together.”
What makes this page so special is that it graphically illustrates “We’re all in this together” by surrounding the editorial with quotations from the Aug. 16 editorial pages of 74 American newspapers, large and small.
Not surprisingly, among the newspapers quoted were such usual suspects as The Boston Globe, The Providence Journal, The Chicago Sun-Times and The Philadelphia Inquirer.
What was unexpected was to see editorial excerpts from newspapers not known to most of us on the East Coast: The Hazen Star, from Garrison, North Dakota; The Frances Tribune, from Francesville, Indiana; The Hayes Free Press and News-Dispatch, from Kyle and Dripping Springs, Texas.
While all of the newspapers represented on the Times’ Aug. 16 editorial page are united in their fundamental support of freedom of the press, their editorial writers typically present a wide range of opinions with regard to any number of contentious issues.
Hearing these voices from far-flung communities “talking to me” from a single editorial page makes me proud to be an American. These voices bring to my inner ear the opening line of one of Walt Whitman’s most famous poems, a celebration of our diversity within our unity: “I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear ….”
Like America at is best, Jewish tradition at its best celebrates diversity of opinion. To this very day, we Jews are a people who thrive on argument, disagreement, controversy. You know the adage: two Jews, three opinions.
Our foundational text, our TANAKH, our Hebrew Bible, is a library of conflicting points of view; it speaks in varying voices, and its melodies are in both major and minor keys. The certainties of Deuteronomy clash with the skepticism of Ecclesiastes. Even the individual books are more often than not multivocal.
Our Psalms, for example, can be exultant hymns of praise – a number of which have found a home in our siddur, our prayer book. On the other hand, most of our Psalms are difficult, dark and dreary: the author of Psalm 22, for example, cries out, “My God! My God! Why have You forsaken me?”
Similarly, our Book of Job is in some sense a book divided against itself. The extraordinary poetry which constitutes the vast majority of this work argues against the primitive theology of the first two chapters and the concluding verses of Chapter 42, the so-called narrative “frame story.”
When we take even a cursory look at our post-Biblical tradition, we find that for our rabbis, controversy is the breath of life. Again and again, after staking out a position in Jewish lore, aggadah, or in Jewish law, halakhah, the rabbis qualify their position with the words davar acher, two of the most important words in the entire rabbinic lexicon. Davar acher: another explanation. These two simple words affirm that for our rabbis of old, truth is an ongoing process of discovery rather than a destination that we shall ultimately reach.
Yes, we do aspire to attain the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth; nevertheless, a decent respect for our human limitations would suggest that “The Truth,” with a capital T, will always remain beyond our grasp. That is to say, there is always a davar acher, another explanation.
Though ultimate truth is unattainable, this does not mean that we are incapable of arriving at facts. Facts can be proven: Water at sea level boils at 212 degrees Fahrenheit and 100 degrees Celsius. America’s Declaration of Independence begins with the words, “When in the course of human events ….” Throwing these words down an Orwellian memory hole does not change this reality.
The task of our nation’s newspapers is twofold: Reporters strive to bring their readers the facts of who, what, when, where and why. Editorial writers perform a very different task; they strive to weave the facts into a complex whole, a reasoned opinion, a truth – but a limited truth.
As was the case for the ancient rabbis, so must editorial writers in today’s American newspapers insist that there is always, always, a davar acher, another explanation.
JAMES B. ROSENBERG is rabbi emeritus of Temple Habonim in Barington. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.