For Religious Ritual to Confront Death, It Must Step Outside of Reason

July 3, 2020 | Jonathan Sacks
About the author: Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks is a British Orthodox rabbi, philosopher, theologian, author and politician. He served as the chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth from 1991 to 2013.

In Numbers 19, read in synagogues this Sabbath, the Torah commands the ritual slaughter and incineration of a red cow, the ashes of which are then mixed with water and used for the ritual purification of anyone who has come into contact with a corpse. Paradoxically, the priest who prepares the ashes himself becomes ritually impure, and by reason of this paradox the talmudic sages held this rite up as the archetypal ok, a commandment that defies human reason. Jewish theologians over the centuries have offered various explanations as to why God would make such nonrational-seeming demands. Jonathan Sacks offers an explanation of his own:

The root from which the word ok comes [means] “to engrave.” Writing is on the surface; engraving cuts much deeper than the surface. Rituals go deep below the surface of the mind, and for an important reason. We are not fully rational animals, and we can make momentous mistakes if we think we are. . . . A moral system, to be adequate to the human condition, must recognize the nature of the human condition. It must speak to our fears.

The most profound fear most of us have is of death. . . . We have no idea what will happen, after our death, to what we have achieved in life. Death makes mockery of virtue: the hero may die young while the coward lives to old age. And bereavement is tragic in a different way. To lose those we love is to have the fabric of our life torn, perhaps irreparably. Death defiles in the simplest, starkest sense: mortality opens an abyss between us and God’s eternity.

It is this fear, existential and elemental, to which the rite of the red heifer is addressed. . . . [T]o defeat the defilement of contact with death, there must be a ritual that bypasses rational knowledge. Hence the rite of the red heifer, in which death is dissolved in the waters of life, and those on whom it is sprinkled are made pure again so that they can enter the precincts of the divine presence and re-establish contact with eternity.

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