The ritual of the Red Heifer is both mysterious and puzzling. It is mysterious in that it describes a procedure in which a person rendered impure by contamination with a human corpse is somehow purified through the application of a mixture made of the ashes of a burned cow with a red hide, cedar wood, scarlet, and hyssop (Numbers 19). It is puzzling in that while the mixture purifies those contaminated, it simultaneously defiles the purified priest who applies it. The efficacy and logic – or absence of logic – relating to this ritual did not escape the rabbis.
In fact, the rabbis were particularly unnerved by the fact this and similar rituals (like the scapegoat of the Day of Atonement, Leviticus 16:8) might very well stir Jews to question the reasonableness of their own tradition and encourage non-Jews to ridicule Jewish practice (Yoma 67b; Tanhuma, Hukkat 7). Nevertheless, the rabbis believed that statutes that defy reason are those that test the strength of religious faith. It would be easy to follow laws that were utilitarian. It takes little faith to agree with laws that obviously benefit society and promote good conduct. No one needs to be convinced that murder ought to be forbidden. But it takes an extraordinary amount of trust to follow a Divine law that requires the sprinkling of aromatically infused animal ashes on people for any reason whatsoever, notwithstanding Nahmanides’ attempt to relate the ritual to an atonement for the sin of Adam and Eve or Maimonides’ connecting defilement with an aversion to contact with dirty and filthy objects.
In fact, Maimonides (Guide of the Perplexed, Book III, Chapter 47) admits that: “I do not know, at present, the reason of any of these things; nor why cedar-wood, hyssop, and scarlet were used in the sacrifice of the red heifer…I cannot find any principle upon which to found an explanation as to why any of these things were chosen.” Maimonides seems to hold out hope that perhaps in the future some explanation would be forthcoming but that seems more wishful thinking than a realistic expectation.
The fact is that all religions – Judaism included – have their mysteries. The presumption that Judaism has fewer such mysteries than other religions might be comforting to some. But as the rabbis sensed, even one such mystery might be all that is needed for those of weak faith to question. If there is some point of difference, then, between Judaism and other religions it is the fact that Jews are taught to accept Judaism despite inexplicable mysteries while other religions are taught to accept their religions because of inexplicable mysteries.