The law of the red heifer in this week’s reading from the Book of Numbers, to put it plainly, makes no sense. The Torah mandates an elaborate ritual of purification by which a red cow is slaughtered and burned and its ashes used to purify those rendered ritually impure by contact with a corpse. Such purification rituals are generally hard for moderns to grasp. But even the ancient Rabbis were stumped by this one: The ashes of the red cow purify those contaminated by contact with a corpse, but they contaminate the priests who, in a state of purity, slaughter the cow and prepare the ashes. Have a headache yet?
In rabbinic thought, the law of the red heifer becomes the paradigm for commandments that defy reason. One midrash imagines King Solomon, the wisest of all the ancients, saying that he had come to understand the entire Torah except for this one law. Some commentators suggest that observing the most mystifying of laws is the highest rung of religious life, for performing a commandment without understanding it is the purest expression of love and devotion for God. Some intimate that it would be disrespectful to even try to comprehend such rules, suggesting we would only obey them if they matched our own sensibilities, regardless of God’s command. The Rabbis praise the children of Israel for accepting the gift of the Torah with the words, “We will do and we will obey,” (Exodus 24:7) without knowing the content of the laws to which they had bound themselves.
Most people I know are committed rationalists. Rationalism is the air we breathe, our precious legacy from the beloved Age of Reason. Many of us, if truth be told, worship reason — preferably our own beliefs — rather than the God of the Torah. The idea that the Torah is to be heeded as an act of love and obedience seems quaint but impossible. How can we be expected to do things that make no sense to us?
I found myself thinking about the value and limits of reason when I saw several articles deriding the moving pageantry of the Pope’s meeting with Shimon Peres and Mahmoud Abbas at the Vatican earlier this month. Authors wrote sarcastic pieces, asking: Does anyone really believe that Peres and Abbas were praying? Was it time for prayer because nothing else could possibly work to bring Israeli and Palestinian leaders together? Did the Pope actually think that bringing these two beleaguered leaders to pray, of all things, could actually make any difference?
I have taught prayer for many years, and I certainly appreciate the difficulty of fathoming how prayer might “work.” The efficacy of prayer surely defies human understanding. I have known many people who wished they could pray for their suffering loved ones but could not. And I have known people who experienced anguish after their heartfelt prayers for a particular outcome seemed not to have been answered.
Surely it is challenging to imagine how prayer could contribute to the cause of peace. Nonetheless, every Jewish prayer service contains multiple prayers for peace, and countless Jews (and others) regularly recite and sing prayers for peace in full-throated longing for the end of violence and hatred in the world. I felt sad and confused that journalists and supposed thought leaders felt the need to resort to derision and mockery (of none other than the pope!) for the suggestion that a prayer for peace might be meaningful. Had they expressed their honest inability to understand how prayer might help, this would have been the beginning of an important conversation. But why ridicule the idea that a global religious leader might want to share his prayer and yearning for peace with heads of state?
Do we really believe that there is nothing in this life that is beyond the reach of human reason? Who could honestly claim to understand all the vagaries of love or illness or the infinite diversity of creation? Do reason and science actually explain everything in our lives? Can they really substitute for the nourishment that music, prayer, love, and faith can provide?
When the Age of Enlightenment first freed the nations of Europe from the chains of oppressive medieval structures and liberated the Jews of Europe from the ghettos, a little irrational exuberance about the possibilities of reason was in order. But in the 21st century, we are surely beyond believing that science can provide us with everything we need.
We live in a time when many people have come to recognize the limits of reason and of science, hungering once again for the capacity to feel gratitude, wonder, and connection to that which is beyond human comprehension. This is not to return to some state of pre-modern unsophistication, but to what Paul Ricoeur calls “second naiveté.” We need not — and should not — jettison our modern knowledge or capacity for critical thought in the interest of a rich spiritual life. But we must let go of an arrogant and close-minded version of rationalism that claims to know it all and asserts that other ways of knowing are nonsense.
When the Pope’s prayer vigil was announced, several people reached out to me excitedly, knowing that I would, like them, be moved by his effort. None of them believed that a meeting with the Pope would immediately solve the 100-year-long conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. None imagined that prayer would magically erase entrenched differences and decades of pain and wounding. But they celebrated the desire of a global religious leader to touch the hearts of warring leaders, reaching for the deep longing for peace that lives in both of them and in all of us.
I do not understand the law of the red heifer, but since the Temple is no more, I need not observe it. I do, however, believe deeply in prayer for peace, even though I cannot know how it might work. I pray every day for peace to come and I hope that you do too.
Rabbi Amy Eilberg is the first woman ordained as a Conservative rabbi by the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. She was a co-founder of the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center, where she directed the Center’s Jewish Hospice Care Program, and served as Founding Co-Director of the Yedidya Center for Jewish Spiritual Direction. Nationally known as a leader of the Jewish healing movement, she lectures and writes on issues of Jewish healing, spiritual direction, and peacebuilding.
Rabbi Eilberg currently teaches at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities and St. Catherine university and directs interfaith dialog programs for the Jay Phillips Center for Interfaith Learning in St. Paul, MN. She serves as a co-chair of the Civility Initiative of the Jewish Council on Public Affairs and teaches the art of listening and conflict engagement in venues throughout the country.