Rabbi Ben Bag-Bag, a Tanna (Mishnah-era rabbi), taught about the Torah: "Turn it and turn it, for everything is in it."1 If we only look hard enough and are creative with our interpretation, the Rabbis taught, ever-wider and deeper meanings and insight will be revealed. The Rabbis could not imagine the idea that any verse in the Torah-let alone an entire episode-did not have enduring spiritual purpose or ultimate meaning. "Just keep looking," they might say.
This week's Torah portion, Chukat, details what to later generations is surely one of the most inscrutable and strange rituals of biblical religion. Numbers 19 is devoted to the ritual of the parah adumah, the "red heifer." An unblemished, healthy heifer of an unusual and symbolically significant color is ritually killed and burned along with aromatic wood and spices. The ashes are then mixed with pure water and used in a purification rite to ritually cleanse people who have touched a human corpse. This mixture is so powerful that the priest who performs the rite is himself rendered temporarily impure through contact with the ashes and water.
The familiar expression chukim umish'patim, "laws and rules," first appears in Deuteronomy 4:5. In rabbinic teaching, the mishpatim are the Torah's teachings whose purposes are obvious and that Judaism shares with all other legal systems; these are sometimes called the "rational" laws. The chukim-and the law of the red heifer is considered the ultimate example-are those mitzvot that do not appear to have a particular purpose and whose meaning, as far as we can discern, is in its performance; the fulfillment of the prescribed act is its own reward ( Sifra, Acharei Mot 10). Y'hudah HaLevi (c.1075-1141) called these commandments "divine laws" and explained that the purpose of such mitzvot as the prohibition on mixing linen and wool, or the laws of kashrut is to enhance communion with God, and that they are "beyond reason."2 Many of these instructions that HaLevi considered to be divine laws were dismissed by early Reform Jews as "purely ritual."
Maimonides, always a rationalist, insisted that the distinction between rational mishpatim and irrational chukim is a false one. If we could only understand the social circumstances in which they came about or their psychological underpinnings, then all of the mitzvot could be explained. For Maimonides, the distinction between chukim and mishpatim refers to our human understanding of the utility of the mitzvot, not to their ultimate value (Guide to the Perplexed 3:27-28, 31-32). Maimonides' approach to Torah reminds me of Einstein's approach to the unknown in science: there is a logic and sense to everything-we just have yet to figure it out! Others claim that we cannot purport to compare our own wisdom with God's and that is human hubris to try to do so. The chukim, they teach, are acts of love; for example, we honor the sometimes irrational requests or apparently random quirks of family members-cooking a favorite dish, setting something down justso on the left or right side of the plate-and take pleasure in expressing our love and caring in these ways. So we can fulfill the mitzvot in the same fashion.
Contemporary Reform Jews fulfill the mitzvot for many of the same reasons as prior generations have done. We may choose to honor and take on a historical mitzvah because it is part of our Jewish identity, and links us to history and community. This is a common reason among many Reform Jews for why they choose to maintain some level of kashrut observance; attention to the mitzvahis a daily reminder that one is a Jew and can link us to the generations before and the wider K'lal Yisrael (household of the Jewish people). My personal observance of many mitzvot is motivated, in large part, by my understanding that "this is what Jews do"-and my own personal actions, of course, contribute to the enduring validity of such a statement; as a Jew, therefore, this is what I do (see Eugene Borowitz, "The Autonomous Jewish Self," Modern Judaism 4:1 [Oxford: Oxford University Press, February, 1984], pp. 39-57).
Maimonides is emphatic that while every mitzvah has an overall purpose, there is no rational reason for the specific "how to" details (Guide to the Perplexed 3:26). For the Rambam, the overarching purpose of the mitzvot is the perfection of the human soul, and all of the commandments ultimately serve this purpose. For us, too, we are motivated to fulfill the mitzvot because they are good for us and help us grow in holiness and character; thus, for example, Judaism's strict rules about what is and is not appropriate speech (lashon hara and sh'mirat halashon) are sometimes hard for me to honor but I know that the discipline that these mitzvot ask of me do indeed help me to become the person I seek to be.
A third reason liberal Jews honor the mitzvotis because we find in them a path to spiritual fulfillment, and a route to intimacy and closeness with God. When we are seeking to improve our skills with the goal of competing or performing, we engage in practice-this practice is in preparation for, and different from, the performance. Yet many of us also have a "practice" whose entire purpose and realization is found in the practice itself; as the Rabbis taught, "the reward of a mitzvah is the mitzvah" (Salomon Buber, ed. Midrash Aggadah, Leviticus, chapter 5).
I, like you I suspect, am not always consistent about what motivates my Jewish commitments; at different times, I can give varying explanations for my various practices. Further, rarely are these differing reasons exclusive; often, all three factors, to different degrees, are present for me. Yet I have also noticed that I can be quick to judge others when their motivations and reasons for fulfilling specific mitzvot strike me as inappropriate or wrong; although I may myself use a differently nuanced version of the same value in a different context. Do you ever find yourself evaluating and critiquing others' explanations for their own choices and standards of observance?
As for the red heifer, it is reported that King Solomon could explain the basis for all of the mitzvot except this one (B'midbar Rabbah, Chukat 19).
- Mishnah, Pirke Avot 5:22, see Pirke Avot: A Modern Commentary on Jewish Ethics, trans. Leonard Kravitz and Kerry M. Olitzky (New York: UAHC Press, 1993), p. 89
- Kuzari 1:98 c.f. "Commandments, Reasons for," Encyclopaedia Judaica, ed. Michael Berenbaum and Fred Skolnik, sec. ed., vol. 5 (Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2007) pp. 85-90
Rabbi Yoel H. Kahn is the rabbi of Congregation Beth El in Berkeley, California.