Chukkat: “The importance of not knowing everything” or “Certainty is the enemy of Faith”

“Rabbi Joshua of Sakhnin taught in the name of Rabbi Levi that the Evil Inclination criticizes four laws as without logical basis, and Scripture uses the expression “statute” (חֹק, chok) in connection with each:.(Numbers Rabbah 19:5)

 These statutes which are not susceptible to explanation are: The laws of Yevama – of a levirate marriage where a man is obliged to marry the childless widow of his deceased brother. (found in Deuteronomy 25:5-10). The laws of shaatnez, the mingling of kinds (Lev 19:19 and Deut 22:11) which prohibit an individual from wearing cloth that is made of both wool and linen in one garment, from interbreeding  different species of animals, and from planting together of different kinds of seeds in the same area. The ritual of the scapegoat (Leviticus 16) where on Yom Kippur one goat would be laden with the sins of the people and sent out into the wilderness to Azazel, while another was offered to God, and the ritual that appears in this week’s sidra, that of the Parah Adumah, the perfectly red heifer, the ashes of which will purify that is ritually impure.

 Now I am not entirely sure that there are only four laws in Torah that do not have a logical basis, nor am I sure that if I had to find reasons for at least two of them that I could not do so, but I was interested in this statement because it resonated for me as I tried to think of how I would defend a number of Jewish practices today should I be required to do so, and I realize that should I try to do so on rational and logical bases I would indeed find myself on shaky ground.  For when we try to understand or to defend religious practices using an intellectual or rational structure we will fail miserably for these are not intellectual or rational activities, they are activities of faith. When we eat Kosher food and forgo certain delicacies our friends rave about; when we circumcise our sons, when we put a mezuzah up on our doorpost or take precious time off work or school to pray together as a community on one of the festivals or give Tzedakah – we might make a quasi-logical argument about community or history or custom, but in fact we are in the realms of faith, and faith isn’t about justifying our religious behaviour it is about living it and feeling it and being part of it.

 Richard Holloway, recent former Bishop of Edinburgh until he left the Church having lost his faith in God memorably wrote that “The opposite of faith is not doubt, it is certainty” I have always loved this statement – doubts about what we do are never a problem Jewishly, it is fine to question God, to quarrel with God, even to feel our distance from God on occasion, but certainty – that is something else. On the one hand it leads to zealotry, to closed minds, to fundamentalism and on the other it leads away from faith, away from God, as the certain mind chooses to dispense with the illogical, irrational, unjustifiable tenets of faith.

 The ritual red heifer is classically one of the unknowable rituals and statutes of bible, and I like it. I like knowing that our ancestors sought ways to God we cannot access, and yet we can tell the story and still feel a sense of belonging to it. I myself would not want to be involved in yevama, in shaatnez, in the ritual of the goat sent to Azazel or the Parah Adumah, but I like the stories of them, the fact that our ancestors believed in their efficacy, that they remind us that religion is not about a mechanistic view of the world, it is about mystery, about intention, about habit, about what we do in the world because we are obliged and required – we are pulled into belonging through ritual whether we understand it or not, and to excise all that we cannot explain would be to leave a colder, bleaker, more stripped experience that would leave no room for faith.

Korach: the ultimate individualist

Now Korach, the son of Izhar, the son of Kohat, the son of Levi, with Dathan and Abiram, the sons of Eliav, and On, the son of Pelet, sons of Reuben, took men;  and they rose up in face of Moses, with certain of the children of Israel, two hundred and fifty men; they were princes of the congregation, the elect men of the assembly, men of renown;  and they assembled themselves together against Moses and against Aaron, and said to them: ‘You take too much upon you, seeing all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Eternal is among them; why then lift you up yourselves above the assembly of the Eternal?’ (Numbers 16:1-3)

 What is Korach saying in accusation to Moses and Aaron? The biblical scholar Nechama Leibowitz notes the construction of the grammar of Korach’s statement which doesn’t say that the community (a single, collective unit) IS holy, but that “all of the congregation ARE holy, every one of them” – in other words Korach sees a group of individuals, he does not see a sharing and mutual entity. And so this careless slip in his language gives him away – Korach is not interested in the Israelite people becoming a holy nation, he is seeking a reward for personal ambition.

  We live in a world where it sometimes seems that each is out for themselves, at the expense of the rest of society. It is all too easy to demonise those we see as ‘other’, and often we are assisted in this by the rhetoric of those who should know better – leading to a rise in xenophobic rants, in attacks on other religions or ethnic groups as well as on those who are vulnerable economically and dependent upon the State for their maintenance.

 When we allow ourselves to separate from the community, when we allow society to fragment and individual’s desires to outweigh the good to society, we are on dangerous ground. Korach and his followers were, doing exactly this. They believed that the holiness of the individuals was of greater worth than the holiness of the community.

 Our modern post enlightenment world which so insistently values personal autonomy above the best outcome for society, has led us to a problematic place. Politicians have lost their reputations with the public, as have many other professions who are seen as greedy or corrupt or at least morally negligent. Those who give back to society are not as valued as those who make money and the desire for celebrity is becoming for many an end in itself. 

Yet still we doggedly read our biblical texts – “Rav Lachem – you have taken on too much for yourself” is the accusation that flies both ways between Moses and Korach. It may be true of them both, hubris meant that both lost touch with reality with terrible consequences for both men, and it may be true of us also. We take on too much for our own selves, forgetting the value of community and the importance of an integrated society, diverse and inclusive. The story of Korach and his focus on the individual is helpful for us to get our own morality back into a better balance.

Shelach Lecha: What we see with our eyes and what we see with our hearts (or when we notice the grasshoppers)

Sidra Shelach Lecha is book-ended with the commandment to look. Early on in the sidra the scouts are urged to look from the hill country to see what kind of country Canaan is, and to bring back information about the land and its inhabitants; while at the end of the portion we find the commandment about tzitzit, the fringes we put upon our garments which will act as a reminder of all of God’s commandments whenever we look at them.

Both of these instructions contain another powerful verb too – one we are clearly meant to notice as it appears eleven times in the sidra – the root la-tur – which in modern Hebrew means to go sightseeing, but which is richer and more complex in its biblical usage. We translate it in the story of the spies as meaning “to scout the land”, but in the directions about tzitzit we can see that it means more than superficial looking, but is about noticing, involving the self through the act of observation. The power of this form of engagement is made more clear by the rest of the verse: “look at them and recall all the commandments of the Lord and observe them, so that you do not follow your heart (ve-lo taturu) and eyes in your lustful urge.”

We can read the first story in the light of the last – and so add a moral dimension to the activities of the spies and their instruction la-tur: – instead of being asked to simply go around the land, they are being required to throw themselves fully into the scouting, in order to find their true objective. They were to pay complete attention, to follow the awareness of their hearts and their eyes.

Hearts and eyes. They define for the rabbinic tradition two ways of being in the world. Tradition tells us that we may follow our eyes and therefore have our ideas influenced by what we see in the world – in other words how we experience it changes how we understand it – or else we follow the heart, and hold a moral compass inside ourselves, so that how we experience the world is influenced by what we believe to be true. Both may be valid, but a Midrash on this sidra teaches that a person perceives the world according to the understanding of their heart. In other words, a person’s interpretation of what their eyes see is not objective, but we construct our own realities independently of external certainty. “So that you do not follow your heart – does this indicate that the eyes follow the heart or that the heart follows the eyes? Are there not blind people who commit all the abominations in the world? Thus we learn from Scripture that the words “So that you do not follow your heart” indicate that the eyes follow the heart.”(Sifrei)

The argument that blind people also sin – and clearly one can say that their eyes did NOT lead them into transgression –buttresses the approach that a person follows their heart.

It is maybe not how we would adduce the proof today, but the outcome is eerily modern – We see only what we choose to see; We understand only what we have the equipment to understand; We notice only what is important to us. How we appreciate and behave in the world is constructed from our own internal resource rather than responding to some objective and measurable reality.

The problem for the spies was not anything really to do with what they had actually seen in their touring the land – the reports back from all twelve agreed that the land was wonderful, fertile, filled with good things but also that it was well defended by a number of different powerful tribes. The problem with the ten spies – and subsequently with the people of Israel – was what they felt about the information they had brought back. We might say it was a problem of perspective – which did they give more weight to when seeing the land: their faith in God who had brought them this far, or their fear for themselves and their future?

They were unlike Caleb and Joshua who clearly understood the dangers yet in their belief in God they spoke up: yachol nuchal – we are certainly able to do it”

The difference reflects not what they all saw, but their inner belief systems, what was in their heart. Caleb and Joshua saw the land for which they have been yearning ever since exile in Egypt. But the spies saw only a fortified land that takes precedence over people, a land rich and fertile and populated. Their perspective was not of the divine covenant but of the power of other people, and they felt diminished in the shadow of those people, so much so that they saw themselves as grasshoppers – fragile, transient, lowly – and worse, they imagined that the current inhabitants of the land would share that image of them.

How we feel inside ourselves, what values we hold, what beliefs we claim, shape our experience of the world. It dictates what we see and it what we simply don’t notice. And what we see around us in turn changes how we feel inside ourselves, impacts upon our values and belief system, alters who we become. If we are so fixed upon our constructed reality that we can no longer notice the outside world, then we will be unable to grow and to change. Our horizons will narrow to fit what we are prepared to acknowledge. All our lives must be spent challenging what we comfortably believe to be the case, we have to force ourselves to notice what we would rather not see, be prepared to take a view other than the one we created for ourselves earlier.

It is hard to do this, to use both hearts and eyes – mediate the easy view of the situation. This is the beauty of instruction to wear fringes on clothing – they are an external reminder of an internal belief system. When we see them we are to think of God’s commandments, directives which exist only in relation to our acceptance of them. Both eyes and heart have to work together, we cannot assume we know what it is all about.

Rabbinic tradition teaches that the mitzvah of tzitzit is equal to all the other mitzvot together, as we are told “look and recall all the commandments of the Eternal and observe them.” Yet the commandment only comes into force if we are wearing a four cornered garment. And this mitzvah can be observed in two different ways – either as tallit katan, an undergarment which only we will see and know of, or as the tallit which we wrap around ourselves, and which we present to the outside world. This resonates with our hearts and eyes – one reflects the internal system with which we see the world, the other acts as the external nudge which forces us to think about what is out there. Hearts and eyes. We need them both.

Counting From Shavuot – There must be fifty ways to do a mitzvah; or how to meet God in the everyday after the thunderclap at Sinai

At the heart of Jewish tradition is the idea of covenant, the binding agreement between God and Israel, confirmed by our obligation to do mitzvot, commandments. This structure has never changed, and the covenant remains in force even when one side or the other appears to break its terms. What is open to interpretation though is the precise nature of these commandments, and, contrary to popular belief, the number of them. Simlai, a third century sage once sermonised that there were 613 commandments– an idea he got from adding up the numbers of the word Torah to make 611 and then adding the two direct commandments from God (“I am God” and “You shall have no other gods”).   While this story may have entered folklore as if it is real law, the truth is early biblical commentators disagreed. Abraham ibn Ezra wrote that this was not authentic rabbinic tradition: “Sages enumerate 613 mitzvot in many diverse ways but in truth there is no end to the number of mitzvot and if we were to count only the root principles the number of mitzvot would not reach 613” Nachmanides knew opinion was divided, while recognising the power of the sermon. It  turns out on closer inspection that the number of mitzvot in Bible being 613 is just Simlai’s opinion, following his own choices for explication of the mitzvot.

            So if we understand that the structure of mitzvot is neither so mechanistic nor so time bound as aggadah says, how do we fulfil the covenant? Over time a consensus grew about what are truly God’s requirements – the Ten Commandments say, or celebrating festivals. And other laws of ethical or ritual nature – supporting the poor, sanctifying the Sabbath, have also taken root. But the action of mitzvah must keep on changing and responding to our context – maybe ecological activity or giving blood could be seen as modern mitzvot.

So I have a challenge. Write for yourselves a list of 52 mitzvot you would like to do – from visiting a lonely elderly person to attending religious services, from volunteering to researching a social justice issue. And each week try to do just one of them. On Shavuot tradition tells us God marries Israel and the Torah is the wedding document, with all its derived mitzvot. So from this year to next, see if you can find, (to mangle the words of the song), “50 ways to meet your lover.”

ketubah cropped shavuot