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Theories of Truth (1): Correspondence and Coherence

August 2018 – Netzach Yisrael Yeshivah, Yerushalayim

Monthly English Broadcast

Theories of Truth (1):
Correspondence and Coherence

Harav Yitzchak Ginsburgh[1]



In the introduction to this lecture, we heard about the number 9 and its relationship to the shofar. The number 9 is considered to represent truth, because truth in Hebrew (אֶמֶת), whose value is 441, in reduced numbering (מִסְפָר קָטָן) equals 9.[2] The basic property of truth is that it is unchangeable. By blowing the shofar in series of 9's we are alluding to truth. One of the verses we say before blowing the shofar is “The beginning of your word is truth”[3] (רֹאשׁ דְּבָרְךָ אֱמֶת). The Mashiach whom we are all waiting for will reveal himself, in us and the whole world, as truth. So, this was by Divine Providence an introduction to the topic of truth.

1. The philosophy of truth

In the last few classes we talked about good. We asked what is “good” and answered from a number of different philosophical perspectives. We also saw how these different approaches align with Torah.

Today we will begin a new series of classes on the nature of truth. We will begin with the same basic philosophical question: What is truth? Can truth be defined? Some philosophers[4] believe that it cannot, because truth is no more than making a statement. This is called Redundancy theory of truth in philosophy. To say that “’x equals y’ is true,” is to say no more than “x equals y,” because the predicate “is true” is redundant and adds nothing to the statement “x equals y.” Truth is simply taken for granted in the initial statement—i.e., that the initial statement is true.

Since some say that truth is undefinable it means that it has to do with the infinite because anything that is definable is finite. In this sense, truth is related to light. On the one hand, in Hebrew, light (אוֹר), which is the first thing created, has the same numerical value as “infinity” (אֵין סוֹף), and also “mystery” (רָז). Moreover, light and truth form an idiom, as in Psalms, “Send Your light and truth (אוֹרְךָ וַאֲמִתְּךָ), they will lead me.”[5] The Torah is called truth as is Moses, the giver of the Torah: “Moses is true and his Torah is true.” We also said that Moses is related to good, when he was born, his mother said that he was good, “She saw that he was good,” meaning that the whole room filled with light (the first thing that God saw to be good). So there must be a relationship between goodness and truth, two intrinsic properties of Moses.

When we add the two words together, טוֹב אֶמֶת, 17 and 441, their sum is 458. Their average value is 229, the union of the two basic attributes of the heart, love and fear (אַהֲבָה יִרְאָה). Meaning that both good and truth have a dual aspect of love and fear, but relatively good is more related to love and truth is more related to fear or awe. In general, awe is conducive to a concave experience, one of standing back. Love is convex. We stand in awe of truth, whereas we are attracted to good and love. But each includes the other, in awe there is an element of attraction and in love there is an element of awe.

So we have taken these two abstract concepts of good and truth and have related them to love and fear.

Truth is usually identified with the law, the Torah's law. Law comes from the left side, which is fear. Being good is an expression of the right axis. But, they must work together. In our present reality, the right has to be above the left, the left has to be included in the right, in the sense of subservient to the right. But, in the future the right will be included in the left. In this world, we can't have too much manifestation of true judgment for we wouldn't be able to stand it. When God created the world he wanted it to be based on judgment, on truth alone, but He saw that it could not be sustained, so He preceded the attribute of judgment with the attribute of mercy. Nonetheless, we have to begin the New Year with an aspiration to become more connected to the truth, the absolute truth of God and His Torah. The two months of Elul and Tishrei are about returning to God, doing teshuvah, which means both becoming better people in our relationships to God and other people and also becoming truer individuals, truer to ourselves, truer to the mission that we were given when born into this world.

As stated above, in spite of the fact that many theories have been proposed to define what truth is, many believe that truth cannot be defined. Something that cannot be well-defined is the equivalent of an open set in logic.

2. Three levels of truth in Torah

In the Torah we find three different levels of truth. The lowest is called “the periphery of truth” (שְׂפַת אֱמֶת). This term is taken from the verse which literally translates as “Words of truth stand eternally”[6] (שְׂפַת אֱמֶת תִּכּוֹן לָעַד), however, “words of truth” also translates, “the periphery of truth.” The basic quality of truth is that it is eternal. What this verse is telling us is that even the periphery, which also means either “language” or “lip,” even it stands forever. In a sense, you have to first stand on the periphery of truth, at its edge, before diving in.

The second level of truth delves deeper into it and is simply called “truth” (אֱמֶת), truth in and of itself. This is closer to the core of truth.

The third and deepest level is known as “absolute truth” or literally, “true truth” (אֶמֶת לָאֲמִתוֹ). This reveals that in some way, the second level of truth was not entirely true. This is the most important model in Kabbalah and Chassidut regarding truth.

The periphery, or language of truth, implies that what is being said is true. A person who possesses this level of truth, never lies. He keeps the Torah’s commandment to stay clear of a lie (מִדְּבַר שֶׁקֶר תִּרְחָק).[7] This is the initial mentality, stay away from the opposite. Never lying is thus a property of the periphery of truth, or the language, the tongue of truth.

The truth itself is deeper and lends itself to an experience of unadulterated truth. Even deeper is absolute truth, which can be conceived as “the exception to the rule” as regards truth itself.

The three levels of truth in Torah law

To better understand these three levels of truth in Torah, we can apply the model to the Torah’s legal aspect, to halachah. The notion of a periphery of truth is associated with the sages’ well-known saying that, “these and these are the words of the living God”[8] (אֵלוּ וָאֵלוּ דִּבְרֵי אֶלֹקִים חַיִּים). Even when the sages dispute, they are all speaking the truth of Torah.

Of course, ultimately a decision needs to be made about how to act in the real world. That is what we call the halachah, the ruling. The second level of truth is reflected in the halachic ruling which decides between one or more truthfully spoken opinions.

But even after a ruling has been made, and even after that ruling has been buttressed by scholars, there is still a principle that every rule has an exception (and thus, every halachic ruling has an exception). One might say that the exception stems from the fact that within the truth, the second level of truth, there are always blind spots. The blind spot is like a point of nothingness inside truth. It is exactly here that the absolute truth lies waiting to be discovered by the exception to the rule.

Levels of truth in symbolic logic

A similar hierarchy of levels of truth can be found in modern philosophy. The twentieth century’s discussion of truth centered around the development of symbolic logic. Two of the most important philosophers in this area were Alfred North Whitehead and Bertrand Russell. They based their research on paradoxes and exceptions to rules. To this day, philosophers have not been able to fathom the depth of the exceptions to the rules and the paradoxes they lead to. The true truth is an existential paradox—just like everything about God and the Torah at their deepest level. That paradox is the true truth, the absolute truth.

In modern philosophy there are five theories of truth. Our way of contemplating on such a set of theories is to try and find the point of truth in each theory and then to correspond them to a Kabbalistic model.

3. The correspondence theory of truth

The first and most ancient theory of truth is called the Correspondence theory of truth. According to this theory of truth, truth is a statement or a proposition that correctly expresses or represents external reality. Meaning, that the statement you are thinking in your mind or voice correlates correctly to something “out there” in reality.

Realist vs. idealist

To accept and hold by a correspondence theory of truth, you must be a realist (as opposed to an idealist). In philosophy, a realist is someone who believes that there is a real reality out there, and that not everything is just in our head (like the idealist). There are three different flavors of realism depending on how you grasp reality. Reality—i.e., “what there is”—can be described in three different ways.

Types of realism

The first is known as simple or naïve realism, which is what most people (99% assume). A naïve realist simply assumes that this table here in front of me actually exists—it is not just in my mind. The second way to describe reality assumes that the table exists as an abstract metaphysical idea, this is a Platonic stance on reality. The third way is to assume that the table, like everything I experience, is entirely and exclusively in my mind and/or in some Supreme mind. This is called conceptualism, which means that reality is a concept.

Now, Correspondence Theory need not be based on simple realism, which would mean that the statement I believe or am saying needs to reflect reality as it is out there. Nonetheless, most philosophers do hold by simple realism. In a recent survey, about 45% of students and teachers of philosophy said they believe in this straightforward take on reality, much more than the other two stances. This is a very common sensical approach. You might think that philosophers are not very common sensical, but in this case they are mostly so indicating that they hold that the truth of a statement can be decided by looking at whether it corresponds to how something really is in reality.

But, really, if the correspondence is between my statement or my belief and between metaphysical reality, that is also a correspondence theory of truth. If the correspondence is between my belief or statement about this table and how the table is in my mind or in some Supreme mind, that is also a correspondence theory of truth.

Realism and the three Worlds

How can we understand these three varieties of realism? Very simply, the parallel is to the three lower Worlds of Kabbalah: Creation, Formation, and Action. If reality is only in our mind (or the Supreme mind) that is the world of Creation. Creation is the world of the mind. Things exist there in the mind.

The world of Formation is the world of abstract forms (like Plato's ideas). There are no actual physical lions in the world of Formation, but there is a metaphysical representation of a lion there, an archetype.

The world of Action is the world of simple realism, where all the objects are just that, physical objects. Not only do things exist in the mind, and as ideas, they also exist in physical and empirically testable reality.

Truth as a property of the proposition

It is important to note that truth is identified with the proposition of the statement, not with the fact (the thing). Regardless of what we are corresponding to, correspondence involves the subject, the object, and the relationship between them. “I believe that this table exists here.” There is my belief, there is the table, and there is some proposition I am making about the table.

Where does truth appear here? Truth is considered to be a property of the proposition, of the statement. I might think that truth is related to my belief, this is very typical of Hebrew where to believe (לְהָאַמִין) is cognate with the word “truth” (אֱמֶת).[9] But, I also might say that truth is related to the fact, to the predicate of the statement, in our case, to the table. Either the table is true, or it is not. Or, the third possibility, is that truth is related to the proposition that connects the subject and the object. Just like a force-particle (a boson) connects two particles in physics.

In Torah terminology, the subject of a statement (the belief), is known as the gavra (which literally means “the person,” in Aramaic). The object in a statement is known as the cheftza (literally, “the object” in Aramaic). And then there is something that connects them.

This is one of the reasons that in the sages’ taxonomy that divides reality into four parts: inanimate, vegetable, animal, and speaker (דומם צומח חי מדבר), man is called a speaker and not as we might surmise, a thinker. It seems that man is different from the animal kingdom due to his intelligence and therefore it would be proper to describe him as “thinker.” And yet, when God creates man, the Torah tells us that he became a living being by speaking.

What is so important about speaking? The sentence, the proposition is called the truth bearer in most theories of truth. The truth resides on the words spoken. This is an amazingly profound insight. The truth is not in the subject and not in the object per se but in the words connecting and communicating between the one who holds the belief and what he believes.

Subject, object, and proposition in Ezekiel’s vision

This sounds like the secret of the chashmal (חַשְׁמָל), usually translated as “electrum,” one of the phenomena that Ezekiel saw in his vision of the Divine Chariot. The sages explain that this word is composite and its two syllables represent to different things. The first syllable (חַשׁ) refers to my sensation or perception of reality—i.e., it refers to the subject. The second syllable (מָל) refers to that which I am sensing or perceiving—i.e., the object. The two parts are combined and held together as a single word. This combination or unification of the subject and object forms the complete word, chashmal, which therefore, as a word, represents the proposition that holds them together, like a connection factor between the subject and the object. This is a topic that the Ba’al Shem Tov delves into in depth. To use his methodology, the identity between the subject and the object created by the word as a whole is represented by another copy of the second syllable inserted as it were in between the first syllable and the second. Thus, the Ba’al Shem Tov discusses the chashmal as chash-mal-mal (חַשׁ מָל מָל). This second copy of mal serves then as the philosophical “truth bearer.”

Subject, object, and proposition in the sefirot

To build a Kabbalistic model for subject, object, and “truth bearer,” we turn to the sefirot, the ten channels of Divine effluence. Among the sefirot, the subject (the gavra) corresponds to the sefirah of “might,” whose name in Hebrew is almost etymologically identical with the word for “subject” (גברא). The sefirot are placed along three axes known as right, left, and middle. Might is on the left axis. Its inner experience and motivating force is fear that we mentioned earlier. The object, or cheftza comes from the word “desire” (חֵפֵץ) which is related to love, which goes together with loving-kindness (חֶסֶד), located on the right axis of the sefirot.

What this means is that “I,” the believer, am “awe,” but the reality about which I am expressing something is “love.” The connection between us occurs along the middle axis, of the sefirot, in the sefirah of “beauty” (תִּפְאֶרֶת) called tiferet in Hebrew.

Sentence and proposition

In the introduction to the Tikunei Zohar, the sefirah of beauty is also referred to as “justice” (מִשְׁפָּט). But, this word in Modern Hebrew has become the word used for “proposition,” the truth bearer. In Modern Hebrew it is also used to mean “sentence.” Now, philosophers will often distinguish between a proposition and a sentence. A “sentence” is a statement in a particular language. We said earlier that the periphery of truth is related to language. But the proposition is expressed in a more abstract manner, in a manner that is supposed to be common to all languages. We would like the proposition to be translatable into every language.

In Kabbalah and Chassidut, this idea is explained regarding the styles used by different sages—where even though they each have their own style or idiom, they mean the same. So, there is sentence, then proposition, and then above these two there is the belief itself and then there is the question of whether the belief is true or not. Truth or falsehood lies above the belief. The belief then becomes a proposition, which finally manifests as a spoken sentence. This is why man is called a speaker.

This relationship between belief, proposition, and sentence offers us another model that beautifully corresponds with the three lower Worlds. The belief is in the mind and once again, the mind corresponds with the world of Creation. The proposition appears in the world of Formation. The propositions end up being spoken as sentences in the world of Action. In the Torah, these sentences are called utterances (מאמרות), and the Torah describes that God created the world by “speaking,” as it were, these sentences. He did so, because sentences are truth bearers. God created the world with sayings or utterances which are truth. Indeed, we find the word “truth” (אֱמֶת) encoded six times as the final letters of a phrase in the Torah’s account of creation (beginning with the final letters of the first three words of creation and ending with the final letters of the last three words of creation). Like God, man too has the power to create through his speech.

In the Tanya, the Alter Rebbe goes to the greatest length to distinguish God's speech from our own, and yet to understand why this is the idiom the Torah uses to describe creation. All of Kabbalah is about unifications, and the truth bearer, the boson that unites them is what binds the subject and the object. That is where truth resides.

Let us summarize what we have discussed regarding the first theory of truth, the correspondence theory of truth. Truth includes three dimensions. These three dimensions correspond to the first three sefirot of the heart:


subject (gavra)



object (cheftza)



belief – proposition – sentence

If a belief is true, it must reflect the world of Emanation, the Godly world (consciousness that is one with God) that is above these three lower Worlds (of separate consciousness).

In Kabbalah, truth is identified with Jacob, the archetypal soul of the sefirah of beauty (the proposition that connects the subject to the object, the truth bearer). This is the Kabbalistic source of Keats’ poetic line, “truth is beauty and beauty is truth.”

4. The coherence theory of truth

The two most important of the five theories of truth are the correspondence theory that we have discussed and the next theory of truth that we will look at called the coherence theory of truth. Coherence means that to be a true statement, the proposition must be coherent, i.e., it must fit perfectly with all other statements that are in your belief system. This is an idealistic theory. There is no need for an external reality. Truth is merely defined by coherence. Does the part fit into the whole perfectly? If you are making a statement that is coherent with your belief system, then that is a true statement.

Coherence theory demands that all your statements must be true. There are some very modern variants of coherence theory that do not require that all your beliefs be true or coherent, but how the system would continue to be coherent or true is very difficult to understand.

Of course, every secular philosopher will say that there can be many systems of belief that are coherent and therefore true. But, we in what we might call our “Jewish chauvinism” believe that only a system (or life) that is congruent with the Torah can be coherent. Any other, will eventually fall into a state of incoherence. That is why we believe that the Torah is the ultimate truth.

Coherence, loyalty, and wholeness in the sefirah of foundation

Where do we find coherence in respect to the seven lower sefirot of the heart? Where do we find the idea that the part depends on the whole and the whole depends on the parts? A key to unlock the answer to this question can be found in the fact that some philosophers explain that coherence is self-fulfillment. As soon as you see that statement, you realize that coherence should be correlated with the sefirah of foundation. How so? The inner experience of foundation is described as truth. Foundation is related to what can be described as “being true to oneself,” or in other words, the drive for “self-fulfillment.” We said that correspondence and coherence theories are the most important theories of truth. Indeed, there are only two sefirot that are described as relating to truth. The first is beauty, whose archetypal soul is Jacob. About Jacob, the prophet says, “You shall give truth to Jacob”[10] Jacob's beauty which is truth, and Joseph's foundation, which again refers to truth as self-fulfillment, or coherence. This is a very profound thought.

In addition, we know that foundation is also related to loyalty. Loyalty is a form of truth (we talked about this also in last month's class) because it depends on all the parts being loyal to the whole (in Hebrew, the root of “loyalty” is the same as the root of “faith” and “truth”). To be true to one's self means to be coherent with one's self, to be loyal to one’s self. This is also described by the philosophers as “authenticity.” In respect to the body, foundation is represented in the organ of procreation. To be coherent or loyal in terms of procreation is called “guarding the covenant,” ensuring that the energy and power of procreation is used only in the proper manner is how we are loyal when it comes to procreation. In Kabbalah, the sefirah of foundation is also connoted, “all” (כֹּל),[11] or the “whole.” These two concepts, wholeness and loyalty in regards to the covenant are actually related. It is explained in Chassidic philosophy that when a person blemishes his power of procreation his state of self-wholeness disappears. It in a sense recedes into his self, into the depths of his unconscious. The way to rectify this is by manifesting one's wholeness—the total coherence of one's being. This is a very important point to understand. When a person blemishes his covenant, his power of procreation, he becomes incoherent. Perhaps this explanation will help some individuals and convince them to safe-guard their covenant. People do not want to be incoherent. The Ba’al Shem Tov said that blemishing the covenant can cause insanity—all mental illness begins with blemish of the covenant. Mental illness can be defined as incoherence of the self.

So once again, correspondence theory of truth is normally realistic and coherence theory is normally idealistic.

Coherence, consistency, and chemistry

Some philosophers distinguish between coherence and consistency. To be coherent is to be more than just consistent. To be consistent means that you do not contradict yourself. But, coherence reflects more of a state of being whole, that the parts fit not just because they do not contradict but because they create a single unified belief system.

To understand this last point, we can use a metaphor from chemistry. Two elements can be in a mixture or in a compound. If they just mix together but do not bind together, they are called a mixture (תערובת), for example the air that we breathe is a mixture of nitrogen, oxygen, carbon-dioxide, etc.

But, when two elements bind to form a compound, they create a new reality, a new molecule. So, the mixture is like a consistent system, but the compound is like a coherent system.

Another way to say this is that a mixture is like the Workings of Creation. God created many things and then, when He looked at them all, he saw that they all fit together. But a compound is like the Workings of the Divine Chariot (a deeper mystery than the Workings of Creation). In Hebrew, the root of “chariot” (מרכבה) is the same as the root of “compound” (הרכבה). Marriage too can be just a mixture or a compound: two people can just fit together (two elements that mix together can readily part from one another), or they can become “one” (as said of Adam and Eve upon their creation, “and they shall become one flesh,” as reflected in their common child, binding them together with an ever increasing sense of loyalty to one another). All the laws of the Torah regarding marriage are intended to ensure that the marriage be a “compound” and not just a “mixture.”

Just like marriage, another concept that is related to foundation and can be used to explain the difference between coherence and consistency is “peace.” Peace between people and between nations comes in two flavors. Peace can be just about living together, but never achieving any kind of true cooperation or relationship. But, peace can also be based on real integration and unity. Obviously, the latter is a higher level of peace.

Three more theories of truth

The next three theories that we leave for our next lecture God willing are: Constructivist theory of truth (truth is a social construct, evolving through society). Similar but not the same is the consensus theory of truth, which says that truth is what most people agree upon (public opinion, as it were; politicians think of truth this way). The last theory of truth (and the most recent) is Pragmatism, most of which was developed by American philosophers. It states that truth is what works! If it works, it is true, if it does not, it is not true.

Interestingly, in Hebrew we say that something works (עוֹבֵד) almost the same way as we say that something is a fact (עוּבְדָה)! When something is a fact, we will see that is related to the sefirah of victory. There is a less strict definition of truth in pragmatism that states that truth is what has worked in the past. This explains why people tend to repeat their choices if they have worked in the past (therefore most Presidents are elected twice, it takes a very exceptionally poor President to get only a single term).

[1]. Transcribed, edited, and annotated by R. Moshe Genuth

[2]. In the decimal system, all multiples of 9 reduce to 9.

[3]. Psalms 119:160.

[4]. Usually attributed to F. P. Ramsey but probably predating to Gottlob Frege.

[5]. 43:3.

[6]. Proverbs 12:19.

[7]. Exodus 23:7.

[8]. Eiruvin 13b, etc.

[9]. Rabbi David Kimchi’s Sefer hashorashim, s.v. אמן, “to my opinion, ‘truth’ (אֶמֶת) stems from this root [אמן, the same root as “to believe”] and it is derived from the form אֶמֶנֶת, similarly to the form דְבֶלֶת, and the letter nun has fallen off in order to simplify the word.”

[10]. Micah 7:20.

[11]. The source of this connotation is in the most explicit presentation of the names of the seven emotive sefirot in the Bible spoken by King David (1 Chronicles 29:11). There he refers to foundation with the phrase, “for all in the heavens and the earth” (כִּי כֹל בַּשָּׁמַיִם וּבָאָרֶץ). The value of the words “for all” (כִּי כֹל) is equal to the value of “foundation” (יְסוֹד).

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