The Midrash states that the commandment of Parah Adumah is the ultimate religious mystery, its reasons unknowable. The commandment outlines a purification ritual for those who come in contact with a dead body. A red heifer, or Parah Adumah, is sacrificed on the Mount of Olives, and then burnt on a pyre. The ashes are mixed with water and sprinkled on those who were impure.
The Parah Adumah ritual is confusing for several reasons. It is a sacrifice that is performed outside of the Temple, something that elsewhere the Torah explicitly forbids. And while the ashes of the Parah Adumah purify those who were impure, paradoxically, those who handle the ashes are themselves rendered impure. The Midrash says that even the wisest of all men, King Solomon, said about this commandment, “I thought I was wise enough, yet it was distant from my understanding.” Even Solomon couldn’t comprehend the purpose of the Parah Adumah. The term used by the Talmud for commandments without any reasons, a chok, is taken directly from our Torah reading.
Whether or not the commandments have reasons has been debated by Jewish thinkers for over 2,000 years. Christine Hayes, in her book “What’s Divine About Divine Law,” explains that these debates arose when Jews first confronted Hellenistic culture. In the Greek world, the idea of natural law, a universal, rational understanding of what is right and what is wrong, was accepted; what would be considered divine morality could be understood by one’s intellect. This perspective challenged Jews to think about how to understand the Torah, most of whose commandments were offered as divine fiats without any stated reasons.
Some, like Philo, sought to integrate the Greek understanding of divine law into the Torah, and find logical reasons for all the commandments; this project of searching for taamei hamitzvot, the reasons for the commandments, has continued to this day. The rabbis of the Talmud and Midrash held multiple points of view on this question. Some rabbis take the same approach as Philo, but many passages in Talmud and Midrash reject the idea that commandments have reasons.
Even ostensibly ethical commandments are seen as purely a reflection of God’s will; one passage in the Talmud says it is improper to consider the commandment to send the mother bird away before taking her eggs a reflection of divine mercy, because all of God’s commandments are exclusively divine decrees.
Another passage in the Talmud that was particularly influential in medieval philosophy creates a division between two types of commandments: There are mishpatim, ethical laws that one would arrive at rationally on one’s own, much like natural law. And there are chukim, divine decrees without any explanation; the Talmud says that regarding chukim, God declares, “I decreed these statutes, and you have no right to question them.”
In medieval philosophy, Saadia Gaon accepts this distinction between chukim and mishpatim, which he calls “revealed” and “rational” laws. The Rambam strongly disagrees and insists that every commandment is rational. God would only act in accordance with wisdom; he explains that “our Sages generally do not think that such precepts have no cause whatever and serve no purpose, for this would lead us to assume that God’s actions are purposeless.” The Rambam devotes nearly a quarter of his “Guide for the Perplexed” to taamei hamitzvot, and he enumerates reasons for every commandment, even ones that seem strange and obscure.
But in the modern era, the Rambam’s understanding of taamei hamitzvot was rejected by many Jewish thinkers. By offering philosophical, historical and even medical reasons for the commandments, the Rambam opened a religious Pandora’s box: If the reason was no longer relevant, perhaps the commandment could be ignored? For this reason, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch harshly criticizes the Rambam’s taamei hamitzvot, because they paved the way for the Reform movement. He writes:
“If, for instance, the sole purpose of the prohibition of labor on the Sabbath was to enable men to rest and recover from the toils of the week, if the Sabbath means only the cessation of corporeal activity in order that the mind may be active; and who could doubt it, since both Moses [i.e, Moses Maimonides and Moses Mendelssohn] interpret it thus, and the Christian Sunday agrees with their conception, who must not consider it mere pettiness and pedantic absurdity to fill an entire folio with the investigation of the question, what particular actions are forbidden, and what permitted on the Sabbath day? How singular, to declare the writing of two letters, perhaps an intellectual occupation, a deadly sin, while judging leniently many acts involving great physical exertion, and freeing from penalty all purposeless destruction!”
Hirsch bemoans the fact that the Rambam’s philosophical interpretations of the mitzvot undermine the practice of halachah, or Jewish law; in actuality, the Shabbat is much more than a mere day of rest. By explaining the commandments, the Rambam ended up undermining them.
Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik takes this critique a step further. He too uses the Rambam’s reason for Shabbat as an example. He writes that if the purpose of Shabbat is merely “hedonic,” to rest, then “the Sabbath idea is dispossessed of its breadth and warmth. And if the Sabbath is to be seen only against the background of mundane social justice and similar ideals, the intrinsic quality of the Sabbath is transformed into something alien. It serves merely as a means to the realization of a ‘higher’ end.” Soloveitchik explains that reasons for the commandments offered by the Rambam often explain a religious norm by an ethical precept, turning religion into the maidservant of ethics. Rabbi Soloveitchik’s fundamental criticism is that the Rambam’s taamei hamitzvot subordinate the Torah to other disciplines, putting Torah second.
Both rabbis Hirsch and Soloveitchik emphasize the need for the Torah to be treated as an independent, transcendent discipline. This call is particularly significant considering that it comes from two thinkers who were associated with movements of Torah Umadda and Torah im Derech Eretz, who saw engagement with general knowledge as a religious obligation. Yet they remained steadfast in refusing to reduce Torah to a vehicle for external disciplines.
And this is precisely the importance of chok: to remind us not to use divine revelation in the service of other ends. We must approach the commandments with humility, and not assume they are there to serve our own personal needs.
Sadly, in contemporary times, many treat the Torah as a textbook of non-Torah subjects; readers scour religious texts to find lessons of psychology, leadership, finance and even medicine.
My objection is not to specific insights. For example, one must consider the psychological aspects within the narratives of Genesis; not to do so would overlook important insights. But when the psychological perspective becomes the primary mode of engaging with a text, the spiritual power of the Torah is lost. A grand gesture of faith can be reduced to an unusual father-son dynamic, and the Torah then becomes a collection of interesting case studies. The Torah should not become “a spade with which to dig,” a way to obtain useful information that the reader finds gratifying.
The Torah is most often conscripted in the service of politics. Every hot-button issue inspires articles about how the Torah supports one viewpoint or another. Written in the style of a lawyer’s brief, these articles of political Torah lack nuance and scholarly insight. Undoubtedly, the advocates of politicizing Torah have laudable goals: They want to ensure that the Torah is “relevant,” and that we “bring Torah values into the public square.” But in reality, the opposite occurs; the Torah ends up being the footnote to political passions, and all that matters is whether the Torah supports one’s favorite causes.
Bringing religion into politics will ultimately diminish faith. Perhaps Abraham Lincoln said it best. When told by an aide that “God was on the side of the Union,” Lincoln supposedly responded: “Sir, my concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side.”
One must never confuse subjective interests with divine imperatives, but this inversion of values is what happens when religion becomes subordinate to politics. The lesson of the chukim is to avoid pulling God over to our side, and instead approach the Torah with humility and openness.
Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz is the senior rabbi of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in New York.
This article was originally published by the Jewish Journal.