Monday, March 31, 2014

The Perils of Certainty (portion Metzora)

This week’s portion, Metzora, describes one of Torah’s most mysterious phenomena: the appearance of a leprous plague called tzara’at in the stones of a house.  The notion of an inorganic object being afflicted by such a malady struck some of our sages as so bizarre that they questioned whether this ever actually happened.  Some concluded: “Leprosy of houses never really existed and never will exist.”  Given the logical question that follows from this—“Then why is it in the Torah?”—the sages famously added: “Drash v’kabel s’char—Interpret it and receive reward for the act of interpretation.”

In that spirit, consider one small but significant detail in the relevant passage.  Torah teaches that the owner of the afflicted home should contact the priest who is in charge and tell him, “It seems there is a plague in the house.”  Commenting on the language here, Rashi notes: “Even if he is an expert and knows for certain that it is a plague, he should not dogmatically state that there is definitely a plague but should, rather, state: ‘It seems to me to be a plague.’”  To which another commentator, Mizrachi, adds: “A person should not be dogmatic even on something he is sure of, but rather should express certainty as a probability.  As our Rabbis instructed: Teach your tongue to say, ‘I do not know.’

Certainty is dangerous, because it can so easily dull our curiosity, stifle our empathy and, ultimately, blind us to truth.  As filmmaker Errol Morris wrote in a recent piece in the New York Times, “If you have an unshakeable belief in something, then no amount of evidence (or lack of evidence) can convince you otherwise.”  Indeed.  It is worth remembering that not so very long ago, people were absolutely certain that the earth was flat, or that the universe was just a few thousand years old.

Torah reminds us that we are not God, and therefore our knowledge is always, at best, imperfect and uncertain.  Rather than lamenting this reality, we might embrace it and see it as an opportunity for change and growth.  Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson expresses this beautifully in a piece he wrote called “Religious Humility on Life’s Journey”:

As we continue in life, we learn new facts, new ways of thinking, new experiences, all of which allow us to revisit our own convictions and beliefs, to challenge our own insights and dogmas.  While we continue to assert our own understandings, the Torah is suggesting that we do so with the humility borne of knowing that we might be wrong, that our most passionate conviction may be erroneous, or based on something we will come to reject later on.  This religious humility, and the consequent courage to fashion a life of meaning based on a provisional fix on timeless truth, is the highest form of saintliness—blending as it does the courage of one’s convictions with the recognition that good people may not share those convictions and they may not be wrong.  Out of our Torah-mandated religious humility can emerge the recognition that we need each other’s insights, even where we disagree strongly, to come to know God and God’s will in the fullest way possible.

As we approach Pesach, the season of our liberation, may we remember that a healthy dose of religious humility can free us from the narrow-mindedness of Egyptian bondage, the state of spiritual bondage that certainty imposes.

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