Parashat Chukat opens with a description of the parah adumah — often referred to as the red heifer. The ashes of this sacrifice were used for purification. The laws of the red heifer are a classic example of accepting the yoke of the commandments without explanation. The laws of the red heifer do not apply today, as they are specific to a time when the Temple is standing in Jerusalem. But those of us who rinse our hands upon leaving a cemetery or prior to entering a shiva house are observing a remnant of this law.1 Other laws for which the Torah does not give rational explanations but that are enmeshed in Jewish identity include the instruction not to wear garments that mix linen and wool, and many of the dietary restrictions. Without reasons given in the Torah, the most traditional rationale is: God said so.
This story in B’midbar Rabbah2 teaches about this law:
Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai was once asked by a heathen, “These rituals seem like witchcraft! You bring a heifer, burn it, and use its ashes to purify someone defiled by contact with a corpse. How can this make him pure?”
Rabbi Yochanan asked the heathen, “What do you do for a person possessed by a demon?”
He answered, “We bring roots, make them smoke beneath him, and pour water so the demon flees.”
Rabbi Yochanan said, “Listen to yourself. The spirit of defilement for us is the same as your demon is for you. We cannot prevent it from inhabiting us, but it can be exorcised. They sprinkle purifying waters upon him [mixed with the ashes of the red heifer] and the impure spirit flees.”
After the heathen left, Rabbi Yohanan’s students challenged his answer.
He told them, “A dead person does not make things impure, and water does not make things pure. Rather, God said, ‘I have engraved a rule, I have decreed a decree, and you have no permission to transgress what I decreed, as it says, “This is a rule of the Torah.”
The great 20th century commentator Nehama Leibowitz reasoned that the heathen needed a rational explanation. Rabbi Yohanan explained it to him in a way he could understand. His students received an explanation the heathen could not understand: God says there is a rule. It doesn’t have to make sense.
In some regard, our Reform predecessors rebelled against irrational religious rules. One example is in the 1885 Pittsburgh Platform:
“We hold that all such Mosaic and rabbinical laws as regulate diet, priestly purity, and dress originated in ages and under the influence of ideas entirely foreign to our present mental and spiritual state. They fail to impress the modern Jew with a spirit of priestly holiness; their observance in our days is apt rather to obstruct than to further modern spiritual elevation.”
But there is another important principle of Jewish life, between the extremes of “all religious practice must be rational,” and “God said it, so do it.”
Judaism joins Greek philosophy, Buddhism, Confucianism, Christianity, Islam, and other religions in promoting a version of the golden mean (see Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot De’ot). The concept is simple: do not live in the extremes. Aim to live in the center: every day, strive to be somewhere in the wide expanse of the middle.
Finding balance in Jewish life is an exercise in appreciating the golden mean. If we reject all ritual practice simply because it does not make sense, we live on an extreme that points us towards non-observance and falling away from the covenant. If we strictly follow every practice without considering how it contributes to our purpose as Jews in the 21st century, we live on the other extreme, which points to isolationism and a separation from the vast, ever-developing Creation.
For decades in Jewish life, many of us as Reform Jews have asked “why?” when considering ritual:
Why say a blessing after we eat?
Why pray when someone is sick?
Why make Shabbat a priority?
Why learn Torah or study more?
Perhaps to move us more into the golden mean, we can ask ourselves, “why not?”
This slight change in the question lets us bring together Jewish practice and core values. What would be the criteria for not saying a blessing after we eat? It does not offend egalitarianism, it does not threaten justice or kindness, it does not sever us from our people or any people. The same way of thinking can be applied to many questions of Jewish life:
Why not pray when someone is sick?
Why not make Shabbat a priority?
Why not learn Torah or study more?
Sometimes we may have values-based reasons to refrain from a traditional religious practice. Asking “why not?” is an adjustment in questioning that lets us hold up the tradition while ensuring it does not violate our ethics and principles as Reform Jews.
The parashah goes on to tell of Miriam’s death and Aaron’s death, both of which presumably require those who touched them to utilize the waters of the parah adumah on the third and seventh days — days significant for shiva. There are many reasons we can give for why it is helpful to observe mourning rituals, but again the question may better be asked from the assumption that they are already worthwhile: why not follow them?
The parah adumah ultimately reminds us that not everything needs a rational explanation for it to have important meaning in Jewish life.
1. David L. Lieber. sr. ed.; Elliot Dorff, Susan Grossman, Halakha L’ma’aseh eds., Etz Hayim, (NY: Rabbinical Assembly, 2001), p 882
2. Bamidbar Rabbah 19:8; Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in Bamidbar, Eliner Library Joint Authority for Jewish Zionist Education in the Diaspora 1993, p 235
Rabbi Vered L. Harris, RJE is the spiritual leader of Temple B'nai Israel in Oklahoma City, OK. She appreciates how our ancient texts continue to speak to our modern experiences.