A smart rabbi once told me that every serious reading of the Torah had to begin with a long meditation on the fact that the answers we most deeply desire are the ones we can never have. Reading the book, the story of our people’s tumultuous relationship with our creator, we ache for illumination. But God, by definition, is unknowable; we are awed by his actions because we realize they lie far beyond the narrow horizons of our cognition.
Few are the biblical stories that present a greater challenge to our modern sense of justice than the one depicted in this week’s parasha. It begins on a cheerful note—animals are sacrificed, God is in a forgiving mood, the people sing praises. Then, however, something goes terribly wrong: “And Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu,” the parasha continues, “each took his pan, put fire in them, and placed incense upon it, and they brought before the Lord foreign fire, which He had not commanded them. And fire went forth from before the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord.”
What, we may be forgiven for asking, is a foreign fire, and why is it punishable by death? These are particularly vexing questions given that the two young men in question are the heirs apparent to the priesthood’s most exalted position. As we can expect, the rabbis have been pondering this problem for millennia, providing a myriad of explanations ranging from accusing Nadab and Abihu of drunkenness to stipulating that their death was punishment for their refusal to succumb to the will of their mighty uncle, Moses.
I would like to offer my own explanation, decidedly less scholarly but deeply relevant to our times. And I would like to call on a far less scriptural bit of writing in my defense, Harry Frankfurt’s 2005 treatise On Bullshit.
The assertion at the heart of this surprising literary hit—the best-seller list is hardly a natural place for a Princeton emeritus professor of philosophy to find his work—is that there is a significant difference between bullshit and lies. A liar, Frankfurt writes, must first know the truth and then choose to misrepresent it; a bullshitter, on the other hand, has no regard for the truth and speaks for no other reason than to promote personal interests.
As we watch so many of the institutions we had once considered sacred felled by mendacity, as we squint at the parade of pilloried politicians and shamed journalists and disgraced academics, we may feel compelled to blame our sorry state on the increasingly loosened boundaries of the truth. But our crisis is deeper than that: What we have on our hands is not an epidemic of lying but a general migration away from any notion of truth altogether. We simply don’t care what’s true and what isn’t; we speak without being bothered by the veracity of our words and act without concern for the consequences of our actions. We are, in short, knee-deep in bullshit.
And so were Nadab and Abihu. The first of the Israelites to enter the confines of the holy Sanctuary, they understandably did what many other men would have done under the same circumstances—they played around, experimented, tried to get comfortable with a job that required strict adherence to protocol and long periods spent in seclusion. They might have knocked back a few flagons of wine or poured some incense into the fire, but they did so not because they were deliberately resisting the Lord’s orders but because, like us all, they were human.
At the very end of his short book, Frankfurt delivers an illuminating thought. “There is nothing in theory,” he writes, “and certainly nothing in experience, to support the extraordinary judgment that it is the truth about himself that is the easiest for a person to know. Facts about ourselves are not peculiarly solid and resistant to skeptical dissolution. Our natures are, indeed, elusively insubstantial—notoriously less stable and less inherent than the natures of other things. And insofar as this is the case, sincerity itself is bullshit.”
The young priests would probably relate. They tried to be sincere—nowhere in the text is it suggested that they are malicious, rebellious, or disdainful of their post—but sincerity is an absolute of which men are never truly capable. To be sincere, we must first know what we’re being sincere about; in other words, we must know ourselves, thoroughly and absolutely and without doubt. As anyone who had ever paid a princely sum for 50 minutes on a therapist’s couch could surely attest, such pure and perfect self-awareness is far removed from the reach of human beings.
What we are left with, then, is bullshit. Which, as Frankfurt playfully points out, is not to say that bullshit is careless or insubstantial. There’s a reason we call masters of the form “bullshit artists” and adore them in real life and in art. Our mock protestations aside, we put up with so much bullshit because we realize that bullshit is perilously close to the human condition itself: Unable to know anything for certain, and anxious about preserving our interests, we make it up as we go along. It was the rotten luck of Nadab and Abihu to end up on the wrathful side of a divine boss who wouldn’t tolerate any of that human folly.
Where, then, does that leave us? In his book, Frankfurt recounts a story about Ludwig Wittgenstein and his friend. The friend was convalescing in the hospital after a small operation, and the philosopher paid a visit. Asked how she felt, the friend replied that she felt much like a dog who’d been run over. Wittgenstein fumed. “You don’t know what a dog that has been run over feels like,” he said. The grand man of the philosophy of language was appalled to see his friend utter a sentence that so blatantly ignored the truth—the actual sensation experienced by an unlucky, wounded animal—and conjured the image of the injured dog solely for the sake of arousing sympathy. As we learn from this week’s parasha, this, more or less, is God’s position in striking down the two hapless youths. What the Almighty may tell us in these seemingly senseless slayings, perhaps, is that if we believe in him, we believe in an absolute, and that even if we fail to follow his rules, we still haven’t the right to make up rules of our own. We can sin and transgress and lie, because in so doing we understand what it is that we sin against or lie about; but we can never, ever bullshit.
Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.