Within the Torah portion of Re’eh, we find the first of three repeated commands to thoroughly investigate potential wrongdoing: “When you hear that in one of the cities that the Lord your God will give you to reside in, that bad people have gone out from your midst and led the residents of their city astray, saying, ‘Let us go worship other gods,’ that you have not known. And you inquire, and investigate, and question thoroughly, and behold it is true: this abomination has been done in Israel.” (Deut. 13:13-15) In next week’s Torah portion, Shoftim, we find parallel passages using the same language of “investigate thoroughly,” (Deut. 17 and 19) in the cases of individual idolaters and false witnesses.

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 40a) learns from these three sentences, and the seven combined words used within them, that judges are to make seven types of inquiry into the facts of a case. They are to ask the witnesses about the year, the year within the seven year sabbatical cycle, the month, day of the month, day of the week, time of day, and place during or at which the event about which they are testifying took place. According to the commentary of the Torah Temima, by Rabbi Baruch Halevi Epstein, this extensive procedure is “effective for ascertaining the substance of the truth.”

We know that the ancient Rabbis were not enthusiastic about exercising the death penalty, which is potentially at stake in all of these cases. If so, then we could understand the Talmud’s injunction to thoroughly investigate as really saying, “There’s no way you could ever really investigate to that depth, that you could be 100 percent certain about the truth,” and therefore these investigations serve to hedge against the possibility of actually carrying through with execution. We can never be certain of the truth.

At the same time, Epstein’s commentary suggests that he takes the Talmud at face value, and that in fact we can know the truth if we go through this process. If so, then we can be confident that the person we’re executing really deserves it, and we don’t have to carry any doubt that we might be wrong. Indeed, how could we execute anyone if we were not completely certain that we know the facts?

So which is it? Do the Rabbis, in interpreting the Torah, believe that we can be certain in our knowledge about such weighty issues, or are they creating a mechanism to prevent us from acting because they believe we fundamentally can never really know? Implicitly this question extends to all knowledge, since all life, all being, is framed by death, the possibility of not being.

A blog post is not the place to treat this question in all its dimensions, and perhaps it’s simply best to ask it. Can we be certain in our knowledge, or is all knowledge tentative, provisional? If the answer is no, we risk arrogance; if the answer is yes, we risk complacency. As we enter the season of Elul and our thoughts turn toward the soulful introspection of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, this is one of the timeless, inescapable questions.

Shabbat shalom.