Public figures appear to speak with increasing regularity and extraordinary confidence about God’s ways. How can one be so sure about such mysteries? How can a human being be certain about God’s judgments?
This week’s Torah portion speaks at great length about leprosy, a disease seen in ancient times as divine punishment. The Torah advises the following if one’s house becomes infected: “When you enter the land of Canaan that I give you as a possession, and I inflict a leprous plague upon a house in the land you possess, the owner of the house shall come and tell the priest, saying, “Something like a plague has appeared upon my house.” (Leviticus 14:34-35)
The Hasidic master, Rabbi Kalonymos Kalmish Shapira, suggests this interpretation: “Even if he is a scholar and knows the exact definition of a leprous plague, he must still use the phrase, ‘like a plague,’—for a person is never able to tell whether what is happening to him is a curse or an event. All he can say is that it looks like a curse….” (Sacred Fire, Metzorah, April 13, 1940)
Who in fact is to say that such a disease is a punishment from God? Such things are beyond human understanding. They remain a mystery. Yet many speak confidently of God’s ways. And many people blindly follow such prognosticators.
Primo Levi, an Italian Jewish chemist and author, writes: “It is, therefore necessary to be suspicious of those who seek to convince us with means other than reason, and of charismatic leaders: we must be cautious about delegating to others our judgment and our will. Since it is difficult to distinguish true prophets from false, it is as well to regard all prophets with suspicion. It is better to renounce revealed truths, even if they exalt us by their splendor or if we find them convenient because we can acquire them gratis. It is better to content oneself with other more modest and less exciting truths, those one acquires painfully, little by little and without shortcuts, with study, discussion, and reasoning, those that can be verified and demonstrated.” (The Reawakening)
Truth is revealed not in pronouncements but through hard work. Discerning truth requires debate. It requires teachers and students. It requires learning. Truth is never granted without effort.
Primo Levi survived Auschwitz. Rabbi Kalonymos Kalmish Shapira was murdered in Trawniki. Both of their writings continue to be studied.
And I will continue to study and learn. One day, I trust, glimmers of truth will become revealed. That trust is my faith.