Faith & Doubt

We are living in an extraordinarily bewildering time. Invisible forces are swirling around us and inside us: viruses, prejudices, dark thoughts. It is impossible to tell what is true anymore. We swim in an ocean of doubt — masked from ourselves and each other, unsure of who or where or when we are.

The information diet I am fed is designed to flatter and confirm my biases. The same for you. The same for the person I disagree most with in the world. The same for the person you disagree most with. The malleability of truth has been carried past the nth degree.

We have landed squarely in the post Tower of Babel moment, bricks toppling as we shake our fists at one another.

The heart aches at all the sadness, more sadness than any one person can hold — a sadness of solitude, of knowing more than ever how truly alone each of us is, this aloneness enacted day by day in our separate houses and quiet rooms. 

How mysterious are the connections that bind us to one another and to our Gd. In a time of uncertainty and loss, where do we turn? What do we do with our doubt?

Surely our times are no less uncertain than ancient times. We know that on top of the regular challenges of being human, our people faced existential threats, violence, disease, wrenching change. How did they handle it? What were the mechanisms in place for going on when everything around them was in a dizzying turmoil?

The last nine verses of Parshat Shoftim describe a ritual called Eglah Arufah, which is performed when a dead body is discovered and the identity of the killer is unknown. It is disquieting: grotesque and eerily specific. In such a case, leaders and judges from the Sanhedrin go out from the court and measure the distance from the body to each of the nearby towns. Whichever town is measured to be closest to the body will take on the responsibility to perform the ritual. The elders from that town will take a young heifer, one which has never been worked or pulled a yoke, and bring it to a ravine that is filled with water, and which land, too, has not been worked. There they will break the neck of the heifer, and the Levitical priests — under whose jurisdiction assault falls — will wash their hands over the animal’s broken body, reciting these ritual words. “Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see it done. Absolve, O Gd, your people Israel, whom you redeemed. Do not allow the blood-guilt of this innocent to remain among your people Israel.” 

One of my first teachers, Rabbi Eric Gurvis, used to say, “If it weren’t a problem they wouldn’t have written about it.” Though this ritual seems bizarre, especially in our age of crime scene investigation and DNA evidence and reopening of cold cases decades after the crime, it must have served a function in its society. Yet I find myself wondering: what function might learning it serve in ours?

This summer, I spent several weeks studying some of the Talmudic writings on Eglah Arufah as part of an intensive course in Talmud skills. Looking more deeply into this ritual, particularly at this time of uncertainty and dread, was challenging and creepy. An unsolved murder raised questions not only of culpability in the human realm but with respect to the land. From the time Cain murdered Abel,  there was a sense that the land itself was alive, a character in the story.  It can cry out for vengeance or vomit out a sinful people. Therefore an unwitnessed, unmourned murder can represent a threat, not only because there is a killer “out there” but because the land itself needs to hold someone responsible. Performing Eglah Arufah assigns responsibility where none can actually be ascertained, and so protects the social order. Atonement can be had on a societal level even if the individual responsible is unknown.

The Talmudic approach to the ritual is gruesome and precise, sparing no effort in the pursuit of certainty. There must be no grey areas. While the number of judges who do the measurement is not concluded in the Talmud, it must be an odd number so that there isn’t a tie vote. You must measure the distance from the body to the nearest town; it is commanded to measure accurately. If the body is decapitated – do you move the head toward the body or the body toward the head? Is the exact location of death where the body stopped moving or where the head landed?  Because the exact location bears on Met Mitzvah (the commandment of burying the dead) that information takes on a moral and religious weight. 

And what if a witness is located between the time preparations for the ritual begins, rendering the case one that is no longer an Eglah Arufah scenario?  If the calf has not yet been killed, it can go free. If it has been killed, the ritual stops there and the animal is buried. 

The specificity is endless, and reads to me all these centuries later like a container for doubt, a strategy for managing the sense of danger and anxiety that comes to the fore with an unsolved crime. The time of the Talmud, centuries after the destruction of the Second Temple, seems from my vantage point to bear some similarities to our own time. The center of religious and communal life has shifted in ways both unanticipated and unwanted. And amid this is a people whose sense of precision is the best tool they have for facing the existential dread that accompanies them day by day. “If we know what to do,” they tell themselves, “we can hold on.” Ritual fills the void when uncertainty grows unbearable. The sages of the Talmud lean into this and reach into every corner where a question might lurk.

They might never know who committed the murder, but they know, to the last dagesh, what to do to counter their anxiety and doubt.

And what does that have to do with us today, as we stagger in disorientation from question to question? 

Now as then, there is prayer and ritual, even if prayer itself is changed by the inability to gather in community. True, I know of nobody who finds online prayer spiritually enriching; it is merely better than nothing. It’s a placeholder until we are able to be together again. Likewise communal ritual — from Shabbat dinner shared across the backyard to B’nei Mitzvah from home to funerals and shiva onscreen — we are in the realm of doing the best we can. Nobody thinks it’s actually working but it’s what we have. Making a blessing over anything we can find to bless sustains us by connecting us to our past and by staunchly refusing to throw the whole thing away. We have what we have. 

Ritual is like a lifeboat in a stormy sea. It won’t change the weather but it gives us something to hold onto. If ritual — like the Eglah Arufah — got our ancestors through their every upheaval, it will have to do to get us through ours. 

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