A thin wedge in the glamorous street that is La Brea, one can almost miss it. I did, in fact. I walked buoyantly with my stroller, scanning the glimmering storefronts, stopping befuddled before Pizza Maven. Beside the famous pizzeria, a narrow door seemed to materialize, which opened to a long set of steps. I hoisted my baby up and passed a series of buzzing offices to get to the shul, Maayon Yisroel. There, several women were absorbed in the Gemara discussing exceptions in the case of eidim zommemin, witnesses that were later found to be falsely testifying. All the noise and little pleasures of busy Los Angeles are forgotten in the suddenly very relevant discussion of false witnesses.
"The first ruling in the Mishna is as follows", one girl confidently explains, "these are the cases of eidim zommemin: a kohein who wants to testify that the mother of a kohein was a divorcee, or a chalutza, thus disqualifying the son for kahuna and was later found to be an ed zomem, doesn’t have his kahuna removed, rather he gets malkus, lashes."
A flurry of Talmudic discussion ensues. It seems unreal, my 7-month daughter drooling happily on my shoulder while I am gesticulating with my free hand, breaking my teeth trying to articulate the concept to my chavrusa.Yet this pithy piece of Gemara was the thing I didn’t know I needed. To qualify to be a witness, a person needs to be able to pinpoint an exact location, time and date that he witnessed the crime. This would enable another person to contest the allegation and claim that he was with the witness at some other location at the time of the crime. A witness theoretically needs to have the inherent ability to be disqualified in order to qualify. Additionally, this witness, if proven to be lying, would be punished in the same way that he intended his victim to suffer. If the witness theoretically cannot be punished with the same thing, then he too doesn’t qualify as a witness. The Mishna comes in this context to explain that in some cases, malkus, lashes, is enough of a punishment to dissuade a person from bearing false witness even though it isn’t the same punishment as intended.
This idea is huge and portentous, it seems impregnated with meaning and I think of what would dissuade me from lying, of casually casting off responsibility for things I have done. There is a strong grain of reciprocity running through the gemara, hazama, the idea that what goes around comes around. I go through long lapses when I see myself on this dreary treadmill of pre-determinism. I am not responsible for what happens; I fall into the great lie, the biggest lie, the lie that humanity has no control over the fate of our lives. We are pawns to some terrible nothingness and with all the pathetic little fury I can muster I rage against the futility and meaninglessness of it all. Oftentimes I see this view as redeeming, it allows me to cast off responsibility, I am a false witness to the nihilism, the existential meaninglessness of our lives. That part of me, the part that buys the lie, is accosted by the other part of me, the part of me that recognizes the creator, Hashem, who has a plan for every Jew, and has a plan for humanity and for the world. That part of me that thrills at the thought of helping someone, at altruism, and feels the oceanic oneness of Hashem, the one life pulsating wildly through it all.
There is a consequence for buying that lie, it warns! You think its harmless, you think it even benefits you, thinking that our existence is valueless, that we have no control over our actions, that when you die you are here no more! No, being the bearer of fake news, that there is no plan, that moshiach isn’t coming, is just another way to cast off responsibility, to fail to take accountability in our lives. That lack of accountability has reciprocal consequences and we lose the ability to direct the course of our lives.
I think about how both these viewpoints sit within me, ill at ease with each other, like two strangers in an empty subway car. I think about it as I walk the dizzyingly free sunny California streets. Perhaps it is impossible to truly believe that the world is meaningless because there is always that G-dly soul, bearing down, bothering me, tickling unrelentingly, reminding me how it is impossible to be sure. Perhaps in its uncertainty, in its openness to accept the possibility of a G-d-given purpose, the skeptic within cannot even qualify as an eid zommem. If a witness can only get hazama if they can, with all certainty, pinpoint a time, a date and a place for the crime, then it is improbable that the weak-kneed fledging doubts of an amateur existentialist, who can only ask questions and certainly cannot produce any hard facts, will qualify for hazama.