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.

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