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Parashat Hashavua Chukat 2013 / 5773 - The Red Heifer and the Search for Meaning

09.06.2013 by

This week's parsha, Chukat, begins with a well- known commandment, the law of the red heifer. The Torah tells us:  זאת חוקת התורה אשר צוה ה' לאמור. דבר אל בני ישראל ויקחו אליך פרה אדומה תמימה אשר אין בה מום אשר לא עלה עליה על - "This is the decree of the Torah which God commanded Moshe, saying: speak to the children of Israel that they shall bring to you a red heifer, without defect, with no blemish on her, which has never had a yoke on it." The Torah goes on to explain that when someone becomes ritually impure by coming into contact with a dead person, the ashes of a red cow, mixed with water and some organic material, are to be sprinkled upon him or her as part of the purification process needed to permit entry into the Temple area. This ritual is seen as an example - the  example - of a חוק, a decree, whose precise meaning and purpose is unknown to us. This is why it is prefaced with the phrase זאת חקת התורה - this is the decree of the Torah. It is a decree from God, beyond our understanding, without apparent rhyme or reason, but, like any decree from a king, we have to follow it. These kinds of apparently arbitrary statutes are distinguished from משפטים - laws - which all make sense and are seen as logical and reasonable rules for living, such as not to kill or steal, to celebrate Jewish holidays, to treat people fairly and kindly, etc.

When discussing this law's decree-ness, Rashi quotes a section from Tractate Yoma of the Talmud (page 67b) that basically tells us that there are many laws of the Torah which are so sensible that "if they had not been written in the Torah it would have been neccessary to write them". These laws - like the prohibitions against murder and theft - are so reasonable and useful that we would have made them into law ourselves had the Torah not. These are called  משפטים.  However, there are also, in the Torah, a  number of unfathomable laws, חוקים, and we just have to do them, and not question their meaning. This piece from the Talmud which Rashi quotes mentions a few such laws - the prohibitions against eating pork or mixing linen and wool; the ritual of the scapegoat on Yom Kippur, and others - but, strangely enough, does not mention our law, of the red cow. I don't want to go into why our law is left out of the list of examples; the main point simply seems to be that God makes some demands of us which are beyond our understanding, and which we could easily question as being מעשה תוהו as the Talmud puts it, pointless, meaningless whims, which would indicate, as Rashi in his commentary on the Talmud says, that the Torah is not true. Rather than coming to that unhappy conclusion, we are meant to accept that they are decrees from God, which we are meant to follow and which we "have no right to question".

I'd like to think for a moment about this "you have no right to question" notion. Why not? You don't die from asking questions. Actually, the fact is that many have questioned these, and other, similarly obtuse, laws, and have come up with many perfectly reasonable and compelling explanations and insights. They are often on the level of the symbolic, as in the case of the redness of our heifer, which is explained by many as symbolizing sin, impurity, or stern judgment, as is appropriate in the case of severe ritual impurity. Much ink has been spilled on explaing the details of the decrees mentioned in the Talmud, and many theories have been put forward. Others, like Maimonides, find reasons and lessons in much of this kind of strange ritual law, while also insisting that some of their details may, in fact, be arbitrary. As Maimonides puts it in his Guide for the Perplexed: "The offering of sacrifices has in itself great and manifest utility... but no cause will ever be found for the fact that one particular sacrifice consists of a lamb and another of a ram, or that the number of sacrifices should be any particular number. ...all those who occupy themeselves with finding causes for some of these particulars are stricken with a serious madness...".   So, if everyone agrees that at least in a general way we can find reason, rationale, and meaning in these decrees, what exactly is the issue here? Why does the Talmud say we have no right to question those laws which do not seem to fit into our conception of permitted and forbidden, right and wrong, when, in fact, we question and discuss their meaning all the time? At least, as Maimionides would have it, in a general way, without going nuts over trying to find the meaning behind every single detail of these laws. 

I think the answer lies in the way the Talmud explained what the sensible laws of the Torah - the משפטים - are. The lens through which we looked at those laws was that of human intelligence and utility: "if they weren't in the Torah we would have had to write them ourselves". The wisdom of the Torah is not, in the first instance, to be found in its otherworldliness or obvious divinity. Quite the contrary: the Torah is seen as wise and just because it seems so when looked at from a human perspective. Our natural sense of right and wrong, forbidden and permitted, is verified, strengthened, and perhaps amplified and made more profound by the Torah. It is the fact that it seems so obviously wise and just to us that makes it clear that the Torah is true. It is the חוקים, the seemingly arbitrary and pointless laws that make us doubt the Torah's integrity, and which, therefore, we can not question.

This insight alone is, I believe, really worth thinking about. Strangeness does not buy authenticity in our religion. On the contrary, the clarity of the Torah's wisdom from a human perspective is what strengthens our faith in it. It is the weird and inexplicable stuff, often mistakenly seen by some as a sign of holiness, that we are, and apparently should be, naturally uncomfortable with, and suspicious of.  

And that is precisely where the Talmud insists that we change our perspective, and not question these decrees from the mind-set we were in when assessing the משפטים - the logical laws. Doing so, looking at the חוקים from a simple legal and moral-ethical perspective would be disasterous, and would lead to apostasy, as these חוקים really are not things that we would need to dream up ourselves to simply run a decent and fair society - we don't see what use they are or what sense they make. However, Jewish tradition, which has developed a rich library of thought on these difficult decrees, asks us to find a different approach to understanding them. We may not ever fully get them, we may all interpret them differently, and there may be elements and particulars about them which really have no deeper meaning than the fact that God needed to pick a number or color or species for the ritual to have any coherence, but there is much we can get from them, much we can learn, if we come to them with a heart that is open and willing to make meaning out of divine decree. Just as we appreciate the wisdom and sanctity of the sensible משפטים from an essentially human perspective, we must adopt a different, perhaps more creative, more sensitive, but still human, perspective to seek out the meaning and message of the חוקים.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Shimon Felix

Why does the Talmud say we have no right to question those laws which do not seem to fit into our conception of permitted and forbidden?Rabbi Shimon

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