On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah - Chukat: When to Ask Why

Parashat Chukat contains the commandment of the red heifer, and it’s one that many people find puzzling. What should we think of the commandments that don’t have an explanation? Listen to Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism discuss what things may be worth letting go, and how we can keep Jewish life vibrant in the 21st century.

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Welcome to On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah, a podcast presented by ReformJudaism.org. Every week Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, shares a new spin on the weekly Torah portion in about 10 minutes or less. Some weeks he is joined by guests and some weeks he gives us his own perspective, but On the Other Hand always provides a modern take on over 2000 years of Jewish wisdom. This week, episode 75, Rabbi Jacobs talks about Parashat Chukat, and asks us what ritual is all about.

This week we focus our attention on Parashat Chukat from the Book of Numbers. A chukat in the Jewish tradition is a statute, it's an obligation. But in Jewish tradition it's one that has no rationale that we can ascertain. So, it's from the category of Jewish law that actually we do because we're obligated. We can't think of a reason why we would. And I'm going to talk a bit about this particular case which is the mitzvah of the red heifer. I want to start with the category of things that we do in Jewish tradition that we can't rationalize. For example, if I said to a group of people, "You have to observe Shabbat because it's an obligation from God," to be very frank people would say, "Yes but what will its meaning be? What will I gain from it? What will my experience be? And then maybe I will do it." Maybe it's old school or maybe it's just for the traditional world or just because something is obligated we do it. For me. I know I do something because I find it meaningful and helpful. I find that eating with discipline with thinking about what I eat and what I don't eat elevates an act that otherwise is ordinary. A meditation each morning is meaningful, it anchors me it gives me a sense of purpose for the day, a clarity of who I am. To observe a holiday that reminds me of a core teaching like the Sabbath which reminds me not to be obsessed with work and to be able to step back and breathe. Those are all rationales.

And when you can make a rationale on how people experience contemporary Jewish people and seekers -- we find our way. But this category of "you just got to do it because you've just got to do it" -- I've got to say I don't think we have, for liberal Jews, a category like that.

So let's think about this mitzvah. The red heifer. You haven't heard of it. You're thinking to yourself, sitting in a car: red heifer? Is that some kind of special steak? Is it some kind of travelogue, we go visit a farm? The red heifer from the Book of Numbers Chapter 19 is the tradition that there were certain kinds of ritual impurity that could only be purified by finding a red heifer that had no defects. Not a little spot, not an extra black hair, but it was absolutely blemish free. It was perfect. And then that red heifer would be sacrificed, and the ashes would be a purifying act for somebody who is impure. However, listen carefully because it's a little tricky: the person who was pure who touched the ashes became impure. So, it's simply beyond our rational explanation. Now all this would be moot because we don't have a temple in Jerusalem. We have the Kotel, we have the Western Wall, many of us visit it, some of us have been working really hard to make sure it's a place for all people.

But the idea that this red heifer is an active part of Jewish experience is really only alive for two groups: one a group of Messianic Jews, most of whom live in Jerusalem, who would like to actually build the Third Temple. Their work every day is trying to get ready for the building of the Third Temple. Now you might say, "Where are they going to build it?" Maybe in Texas there's room and maybe in the Negev but no, no, no, no. They don't want to build the Third Temple in some empty area. They'd like to build it on what we call the Temple Mount. But if you've been there or seen any of the iconic photographs you know there's actually a mosque right where the Temple stood. It's called the Dome of the Rock and then just a little bit to the side is the El Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest site in Islam. So, the idea of building a Third Temple is just a wee bit problematic because what it means is actually tearing down Muslim holy sites. These Messianic Jews that talk and actually prepare are hoping that they can find a red heifer that is perfect because such a find will signal that in fact the messianic time triggered by the rebuilding of the Temple... all those things will come into play. Well, fast forward, in the United States there are a group of evangelical farmers who've been actually trying to raise that red heifer. And a few of them over the last couple of decades have pretty much done it. In fact, one had a red heifer that was absolutely blemish free. But when it was examined closely had a few extra black hairs. I know what you're thinking. You're walking along going: "OK Jacobs, you have walked off the plank. You're just way into something irrelevant here." But I do have a point. Stay with me here, stay, stay, stay.

The point is that this is some part of Jewish tradition that we can't explain, we can't rationalize. And yet there are a group of people, Jewish and Christian, that have focused enormous amounts of attention on this. I'm curious, reading chapter 19 of the Book of Numbers, but I am frightened by people who are going to make this the cornerstone of not just pushing forward a messianic agenda but one that could be catastrophic for the world in which we are living in, for that tolerance we're trying to cultivate between the Christian and the Muslim and the Jewish and the Buddhist and the Hindu. And therein lies the problem with religiosity that can't be either understood or explained.

Now I know that some things are mysterious the power of a ritual moment. When we welcomed our three kids into the covenant of their ancestors. These were just incredibly transcendent moments of power and beauty. And I couldn't have anticipated. But the whole category of Jewish law that says, "Just do it because you are commanded," I think is outdated category for contemporary non-Orthodox Jews. I think this is a perfect example, and as you heard me describe the red heifer and the challenge of something that is brought into being because it purifies but the one who touches the ashes that purify becomes impure. You understand that it feeds into a notion that religion is beyond our realm of understanding. Sometimes it moves into the category of magic or something that's simply irrational, not just non-rational.

I say all that because I'm encouraging each of us to sort through and find the things that could be really, really, powerful for us in constructing lives of meaning and purpose. And by the way it's not just rituals that can have power. We know that social justice is a core part of the Jewish tradition. Every Torah portion has a haftarah. There's a beautiful haftarah for Parashat Chukat from the Book of Ezekiel and we learn and particularly places that our prophets taught that social justice is understandable. Doing right doing justly is one of the ways that we shape the world around us, but also, we become shaped by such acts of ritual, justice, communal acts of holiness, and of enriching the people around us. These are all the core building blocks of a life of faith a life of spirituality. I know for me, I liked animals. I don't have a red heifer, I got a dog, a great dog. Not blemish free, but a dog nonetheless. Let's make sure in our reading and practicing the Jewish tradition that we can actually let go of some things that really should be let go of. And not hold on and not make them potentially thorns in the sides of our interfaith partners in religious life. So chukat: powerful maybe even a little bit challenging, but ultimately, I think it reminds us how we in the 21st century are going to make Jewish life vibrant, how we're to make it relevant, how we're going to make it alive. And we don't need an animal for that. We just need our sechel -- our ability to think, our hearts, our ability to feel. And we can and will shape lives of Jewish authenticity and Jewish power and beauty. B'hatzlachah -- blessings to you -- as you do so.

Thanks for joining us for this week's episode of On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah. If you liked what you heard today, and we hope you did, you can find new episodes each week at ReformJudaism.org and on iTunes, where we would love for you to rate and review us. And you can visit ReformJudaism.org to learn more about all aspects of Judaism including rituals, culture, holidays, and more. On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah is a project of the Union for Reform Judaism, a leading voice in the discussion of modern Jewish life. Until next week, l'hitraot!