Thursday, September 3, 2009

Telling Stories, Telling the Truth

As the school year begins for most of us, we will be asked - probably over and over - "Is this story true?" Whether we are teaching Torah narrative, Jewish history, or Midrash, we will need to understand the meaning behind the question before we can give an appropriate answer.

What does "true" mean? I believe there are multiple ways to understand this word.
  • True can mean historically accurate, verifiable through scientific examination.
  • True can mean fundamentally valid, with an intrinsic importance to understanding the world.
  • True can mean 'what I believe' - the story from the perspective of the group to which I belong.
  • True can mean 'what I want the listener to believe' - part of the narrative that defines my identity and that I hope will shape the identity of others.
With all these meanings for a simple one-syllable word, what can the answer be to the question, "Is this story true?"

Before you answer, I believe it is important to think deeply about the motivation for the question. Does the student want to know what you believe? What you want him or her to believe? Whether the enduring idea of the story has validity?

Only when you have considered these possibilities do I believe you can answer honestly and appropriately.

In this essay by Daniel Shifrin you will read about one parent's struggle with this issue. You may or may not agree with his conclusions.
The truth is that you should be struggling with the issue as well.

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