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Torah Commentary
Chukat (June 28, 2014)


Saul Kaiserman,
Director of
Lifelong Learning

THIS WEEK’S TORAH PORTION is called Chukat; the word “chukim,” in Modern Hebrew, is translated as “laws.” Recently, we read another portion titled Mishpatim, which also could reasonably be translated as… “laws.” And actually, the word Torah itself often is translated as “Law” (or sometimes “Law of Moses”), as could the words “halachah” (“oral law”) and “mitzvah” (“commandment”). I know they say Judaism is a legalistic religion, but seriously, what’s the difference between “chukim” (generally translated, to avoid confusion, as “statutes”) and “mishpatim” (“ordinances”)?

In the United States, the distinction between statutes and ordinances is hierarchical: Federal legislation is called a “statute,” while local legislation is an “ordinance.” Jewish tradition, however, has a different understanding of the distinction between “chukim” and “mishpatim.” According to a long history of interpretation, “mishpatim” are those laws that we could have come up with on our own through the power of our reason, even had we not be instructed to follow them by the Torah. They are a rational, ethical basis for a civilized society: Don’t steal, don’t murder, don’t bear false witness. We easily can see that the consequence of failing to live by these principles would be total anarchy.

“Chukim,” on the other hand, are those laws that only could be the result of Divine revelation. We follow them for the sole reason that God has told us to do so: Observing Shabbat, blowing the shofar, or immersing oneself in a mikveh are examples. The Torah doesn’t try to explain the logic behind these rules, and we are expected to obey them without understanding their rationale. Actually, we might not even understand the words themselves: Mikveh? Shofar? Certainly not as straightforward as “don’t steal.”

The paradigmatic example of one of these “statutes” is in this week’s portion, in which we are taught what to do if a person comes into contact with a corpse. The person must find a pure red heifer, slaughter and burn it, and then make a mixture with its ashes and water. Being sprinkled with the ashes for seven days will make you ritually pure (and once again allowed to offer sacrifices in the Temple), but the person doing the sprinkling becomes ritually impure (and needs to go to the mikveh). Of course, this makes no sense. Why a red heifer? How does mixing its ashes with water make one pure? And, most troubling to the commentators, how can the same substance make one person pure and another person impure?

Reform Judaism, born out of the Enlightenment and a faith in the power of reason, historically has tended to downplay these “chukim.” Ethical teachings always have taken precedence for us over ritual observances. We believe that one day, all people everywhere will hold one another accountable to the universal truths of the “mishpatim.” We come together as a community so that we may spread justice and integrity.

But, at the same time, we cannot ignore the “chukim,” for it is these statutes — precisely the ones that defy reason — which define us as distinctively Jewish. While a humanitarian, ethical orientation is essential, it is not sufficient to hold us together as a people or as a religion. Here, too, there is a classic Jewish response: Interpret! Find meaning where one may not be obvious. So, for example, Maimonides suggests that blowing the shofar is meant as a “wake-up call,” to rouse us from the slumber of daily life and repent. When we celebrate Shabbat, we see an opportunity to put aside the work that occupies our time for six days of the week and instead relax with loved ones. We put aside a mobile phone, not simply because it is a “mitzvah,” but so that it won’t distract us from the fleeting joys of being present in the moment. And a mikveh…well, everyone can use a bath now and then. No, seriously: The metaphor of washing one’s cares (or sins) away, immersing oneself and being born anew, can be a powerful one.

So what might be the message of the red heifer? Many commentators argue that it is precisely the incomprehensibility of this law that makes it important: We need the humility to recognize that, at times, God is inscrutable. We cannot always make sense of the world around us, that alongside rational behavior we find senselessness and absurdity.

As we get better at understanding the patterns to explain everything around us, from the human body to the laws of physics, the notion that some things might be inexplicable can be demoralizing or even frightening. After all, we want to understand why we still haven’t reached that just world for which we strive, and we want to know how to get there faster. Yet, I find comfort in the notion that no matter how much we learn about ourselves and the world around us, there always will be mystery and, perhaps, wonder. Our challenge is to wake up from our slumbers, let go of all those constant distractions for a short while, and immerse ourselves in the renewing power of the surprising possibility of the moment.

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