Religion is strange, and religious practice is not rational. People commonly say that religion is how ancient people explained how the world works, and now that we have science we don’t need religion.
This point of view insults ancient people and confuses the difference between religion and science, debasing the meaning of both. Science is the human attempt to explain how things work. Religion is the human attempt to explain why things are.
The difference is huge. At its core, science is rational and based on evidence. Religion, on the other hand, is non-rational and based on belief or faith that there is a mystery to existence that is beyond rational understanding.
This week’s Torah portion addresses this with the ritual of the Red Heifer. A Red Heifer, without blemish is slaughtered and completely burned. Its ashes are mixed with water to make a solution that cleanses anyone who becomes ritually impure.
If it sounds strange, it is. It was strange to our sages of blessed memory as well. In the Pesichta de Rav Kahana (5th or 6th century) Rav Yohanan Ben Zakai explains that this is a hok (a mitzvah without rational reason) commanded by God that simply must be obeyed. In other words, some religious rituals make no rational sense.
Perhaps that is their power. That is, by performing them we are taken to a place where we engage with the mysteries of existence, like fasting, or prayer, or meditation, or kashrut. None have a rational explanation, but all can help us connect to the deeper meaning of life. For, as Hamlet said to Horatio, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”