On a recent visit to Congregation Etz Chaim in Kew Garden Hills, New York, I spoke Shabbat morning on the topic of Chukim, what one may call the “a-rational” laws of the Torah. The occasion: that week’s Torah reading, which focused on the “Parah Adumah”, the Red Heifer.
Someone in contact with a corpse purifies himself by being sprinkled with water mixed with the ashes of the Red Heifer. Why this concoction is effective is anybody’s guess; in fact, the wisest man that ever lived, King Solomon, was thoroughly puzzled by the law. According to Rashi, the law so lacks obvious logic, that the nations of the world have taunted Israel, insinuating that the lack of an obvious reason for the law indicates that it’s in fact – meaningless.
How does the Torah respond to such a claim? ?
With “Zot Chukat HaTorah” – “This is the decree of the Torah!”
According to Rashi: “I have issued this decree,” says G-d , “and you have no permission to question its validity.” The validity of the Chukim derive from His authority, not from the mitzvah’s logical appeal.
A series of verses in the fourth chapter of Devarim, however, seem to clash with Rashi’s definition of chukim. Far from evoking jeers from the nations of the world, Chukim will prompt non-Jews to respect us: “They will hear all of these chukim and say, ‘this nation is but a wise and understanding nation’”.
The great Abarbanel asks the obvious question:
How could the verse say, that because of the chukim – whose reason is not known – the nations will say that we Jews are a wise and understanding nation? Just the opposite is true: because the reason for the Chukim is unknown, we’ve learned that the nations will say that we are foolhardy for observing them!
I shared three approaches with the members of Etz Chaim:
There are those Chukim that the human mind can grasp, Kli Yakar notes. On the other hand, there are those that are incomprehensible to the majority of people – yet revealed to unique individuals of the generation.
The laws of Kashrut may well fall into the former category: If we are what you eat, maybe the placid nature of kosher animals contribute to a more refined personality; the painlessness of the shechita process has advantages both for the animal being slaughtered – and this in turn makes us more sensitive human beings. The more rational Chukim such as Kashrut earn us accolades from the nations of the world. But the Red Heifer has little rational appeal; it is for this type of Chok that the Torah declares “Zot Chukat HaTorah” – This is the Torah’s decree!
A valiant effort at reconciling sources, but it seems that Kli Yakar falls a bit short of the mark: It’s one thing to say that various Chukim are a bit more understandable than the Parah Aduma – it’s quite another to say that the nations of the world will respond with such enthusiasm!
A Chassidic commentary on Chumash, Rabbi Yechezkel Panet’s Mareh Yechezkel does not distinguish between different levels of Chukim as does Kli Yakar.
According to Mareh Yechezkel, throughout the centuries, the nations of the world have sought to weaken us by pointing out Jewish ethical and moral mistakes. Yet, through our observance of the Chukim, the Holy One Blessed be He responds “measure for measure”: When we – without receiving a rational reason, without questioning G-d’s authority – follow the Chukim – He responds in kind. Even when we are not worthy, G-d, so to speak, “does not ask any questions”: He shines on us independent of our other spiritual achievements or failures.
To appreciate this dynamic in the modern context, one need look no further than the State of Israel. A recent book published by the Council on Foreign Relations – Start-Up Nation – addresses the following question: “How is it that Israel–a country of 7.1 million people, only sixty years old, surrounded by enemies, in a constant state of war since its founding, with no natural resources–produces more start-up companies than large, peaceful, and stable nations like Japan, China, India, Korea, Canada, and the United Kingdom?”
Start-Up Nation’s authors have their own explanations, but Mareh Yechezkel would likely argue that our dedication to Chukim plays a role.
Such success unconsciously troubles the nations, prompting attacks on our adherence to these same Chukim:
In May 2010, JTA reported that New Zealand has banned shechita, kosher slaughter of animals. The country’s new animal welfare code mandates that all animals for commercial consumption be stunned prior to slaughter to ensure they are treated “humanely and in accordance with good practice and scientific knowledge.” Rabbi Moshe Gutnick, acting president of the Organization of Rabbis of Australasia, responded to the new policy: “One of the last countries I would have expected to bring in this blatantly discriminatory action would have been New Zealand.”
Such antagonism towards Chukim may not necessarily be conscious. One indicator of this is the verses in Devarim Ch 4. Here, non-Jews are cited as praising us for the brilliance of our Chukim. As the verse clearly states, they are astounded by our ability to maintain our close relationship with G-d through the Chukim.
For Mareh Yechezkel, we have a paradox: The taunting highlighted by Rashi in the framework of the Red Heifer is really the outgrowth of a deep, unconscious admiration of our people and its ongoing ability to find grace in G-d’s eyes through the observance of the Chukim.
A follow-up question that one could ask on the view of Mareh Yechezkel is the verses the surround those dealing with the Chukim:
In verse five, “Behold, I have taught you statutes and ordinances, even as the LORD my God commanded me, that you should do so in the midst of the land in the land you are going in to posses”. Statutes are chukim, while ordinances are mishpatim. A foil to the chukim, misphatim are the Torah’s rational civil laws.
After we are told that the Chukim are our wisdom and understanding in the eyes of the people, the Torah concludes in verse 8: “And what great nation is there, that has statutes and ordinances so righteous as all this law, which I set before you this day?”
In other words, in Chapter 4 of Devarim, Chukim are “sandwiched” by the Mishpatim. So even after Mareh Yechezkel‘s creative approach to the Chukim, there’s a lingering sense that he falls short of taking this context into consideration.
…..on the other hand, accentuates this context: The nations of the world sense our commitment to the Mishphatim, civil laws, that show our dedication to ethical and just behavior. In turn, they will soon understand that the Chukim are not void of logic; rather, they possess a hidden, internal logic that not all are privy to. It is this context that will prompt them to say that the Jewish people “is but a wise and understanding nation…”
How does Rabbeinu Bachaye’s view reconcile the question with which we opened our discussion? How are we to understand this deep sense of respect alongside the taunting referred to by Rashi ?
The answer, I think, is straightforward:
Sefer Devarim relates to the Chukim when they are practiced in the context of an integrated Jewish life: a life in which we Jews are scrupulously observant of the Torah’s standards of behavior between man and man. Devarim’s context is honesty in business dealings, adherence to the civil laws of the state, and the like. Our exemplary moral behavior points to a hidden wisdom in our Chukim, as well.
In contrast, Rashi’s comments on the Red Heifer relate to a Chok detached from this context. Rashi relates to the Red Heifer as a “stand alone” halacha – through the eyes of the broader world. It’s only in this context that the Torah’s Chukim fail to impress.
The message is clear: We Jews hold the key to an enhanced image of G-d’s Torah in the world. Extra devotion to the rational civil laws, the Mishpatim, is the key to a true “Kiddush Hashem”, to an appreciation of the Torah in its entirety. When we internalize this message, we actualize our potential as a truly wise and understanding nation.