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Legislated uncertainty

To be human is to have questions - they drive creativity and curiosity, and are the cornerstone of humility. Plus, they're built into the system. (Shofetim)
Illustrative. Question marks. (iStock)
Illustrative. Question marks. (iStock)

I recently received an email asking for my reflections and memories upon the 20th anniversary of the Jewish New Teachers Project, a program to mentor Jewish educators, in which I was the first cohort. One of my strongest memories was of the culture dissonance (“clash” is too strong a word) between us, a group of Jewish day school educators, and our mentors, who were from the University of California. In particular, they wanted us to listen and absorb. We, however, wanted to ask questions, to debate and discuss.

It makes sense. As Jews, we are enculturated and trained to ask questions. The entire Talmud and halachic (legal) process is predicated on asking questions, investigating, discussing, arguing.

But we, as humans, also tend to be uncomfortable with uncertainty. We find it distressing, unsettling, and anxiety-provoking. This makes a lot of sense on an evolutionary level, when a second’s hesitation could have meant the difference between fleeing the predator or being eaten by it. Schooling also trains us to look for the “right” answer, as do the military and Western science and medicine. Cognitively, ambiguity makes decision-making and navigating one’s world much more challenging. Just think of attempting to understand a new language or different cultural norms, not to mention choosing career paths. In reality, learning to cope with uncertainty is about learning to cope with life, and resilience is foundational to maintaining mental health.

Theologically, uncertainty can be terrifying, potentially paving the path to existential crisis and a loss of faith. And when faith is fundamental, uncertainty is basically anathema. But the Torah not only allows for that uncertainty, it deals with it head-on. Moses stresses over and over in his final words to the Israelites that God is neither visible, nor corporeal, nor of this universe, and that making a physical representation of God — something unambiguous — is the antithesis of Judaism. In the absence of prophets and prophecy, which has been the reality for the last 2,500 years, God is not audible to us either. Grappling with faith and doubt began with Abraham and Moses, and it has been addressed by virtually every Jewish philosopher ever since.

And yet, there is still this huge expectation that things should be clear and certain. What’s the halachah? What’s the p’sak (legal decision)? What is the right answer? And of course God exists! On the one hand, the “mysteries are God’s” (Deuteronomy 29:28), but somehow, on the other hand, we are expected to know all the answers. The stakes for getting it wrong are huge: if I mess up (whatever that means), not only do I imperil my own soul, but I endanger the welfare of my family (maybe even my nation). No wonder we avoid uncertainty!

In this week’s parashah, aptly named Shofetim (Judges), Moses places uncertainty as the foundation of our judicial and legal system. We are commanded to appoint shofetim who are responsible for questioning witnesses and investigating matters. And the clarifying of laws and decisions are never done by one person (three is the minimum required for a court). In Deuteronomy 17:8, Moses addresses the reality of uncertainty: “Ki yipalei mimcha davar lamishpat…” — “If a case is too baffling for you to decide…” While the word “ki” is commonly translated as “if,” it can alternatively be translated as “when.” Baffling cases are bound to arise, and when they do, what follows is the protocol. Additionally, the word “yipalei” (“is baffling”) is from the root “pele,” meaning “wondrous” or “inexplicable.”

Questions will arise because sometimes matters of halachah are as inexplicable and wondrous to us as miracles. Not having the answers is part of our system. Asking questions is not only allowed; it is fundamental, and even commanded.

Uncertainty is not only okay, rather it is essentially, foundationally, human. It cannot be vanquished. It can and should be harnessed. It drives creativity and scientific discovery and is the cornerstone of humility. I have often said to my students, and to myself, that I cannot prove that God exists. At the same time, nobody can prove to me that He does not.

The overarching paradigm that I believe emerges from this parashah, from the entire book of Deuteronomy, indeed from the whole of Torah, is itself the ultimate question, born of uncertainty: How do we serve God in the best possible way, the way that is closest to what God really wants of us? I don’t have the answers. None of us does. It is the wondrousness of questions, and the permission to ask them, that guide our path.

About the Author
Leah Herzog is a life-long educator, writer, counselor and speaker. She holds Masters Degrees in Education Psychology and Educational Leadership. Leah is passionately committed to building relationships and meaningful living through Torah-writ-large. She made aliya with her husband in 2019, and is the unabashedly proud mother of two adult children. Leah and her husband, Rabbi Avi Herzog, reside in Givat Zev.
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