INSIGHT

5767 - #21

THE CHOK

Bamidbar 19:2 opens with Zot chukat haTorah, “This is a chok of the Torah,” and so begins the chapter of the Parah Adumah, the Red Heifer, the prototypical chok. The chok, of course, is a law that is beyond our – i.e. human – understanding.1 As Rambam, Shemona Perakim, Chapter 6 points out, these are mitzvot that we follow simply because they are commanded by God. Without the tzivui, the command, these actions would not be undertaken; it is the sole consideration that they are the commandments of God that give these actions value. The reason is simple; these commandments are incomprehensible. We can see no inherent value in their performance or observance. It is the external value that they are commanded by God that gives them their value. An example would be the prohibition to eat pork. On the surface, the prohibition is absurd. Human thought can see no reason – be it ethical, moral or spiritual – for one not to eat this food. We refrain because God told us to; we refrain in deference to the Divine decree.2 This is, similarly, the essence of the mitzvah of Parah Adumah. We follow this procedure because God told us to but we really have no idea of the inherent mechanics of this mitzvah. We essentially act in a haze. We do not really know what we are doing. We act – in the times of the Temple we followed this procedure -- without any comprehension of what exactly was behind this procedure -- because this is what God said to do. In following a chok, our mindset is confusion. We cannot connect the dots. We act but we do not know why we act, except that this is the Divine command, yet this explanation still leaves us somewhat hollow -- for a disconnection in our being, through action without full understanding, still exists.

            This has been the general understanding of the term chok throughout the ages. It was a behaviour that was incomprehensible within the parameters of human reason. This term, though, seems to have taken on, within the past few years, an additional meaning that would seem to be somewhat new and different than its classical meaning. We now often also use this term to describe, not only mitzvot that are incomprehensible within the parameters of human reason but also, mitzvot that are deemed to be defiant of and in contradiction to human reason. The laws of the Parah Adumah did not make sense to the human mind but observance of these commands could still not be deemed wrong within the view of the human mind. In classical terms, the chok decreed an action that was simply absurd,3 not an action that was deemed wrong, incorrect or evil in the view of human reason. In our world today, though, the term is also used to describe mitzvot with which the general populace disagrees, that the general populace may challenge morally or ethically. This is not necessarily an incorrect application of this term but it does demand the recognition of a new dynamic. It is not simply that we find ourselves facing absurdity and must call upon ourselves to respond to the confusion of absurdity. The modern challenge demands of us to respond to a new confusion, a confusion of conflict. It demands of us to follow God not only in the face of absurdity but in the face of challenging this general understanding of ethics and morality.  

             This issue touches upon many matters including the very question of whether Torah recognizes a value in natural morality. The issue, however, also touches upon the potential for conflict between a mitzvah and the very values we learn from Torah itself. From Ramban, Vayikra 19:2 and Devarim 6:18, we learn that we are to derive moral and ethical lessons from the mitzvot yet this new type of chok may also contradict such lessons. Of importance to us, within the parameters of this Insight, though, is the difference that we must recognize between the confusion of conflict and the confusion of absurdity and the subsequent difference that we must maintain in our responses. The former is initiated because one’s understanding seems to be in conflict with Torah. The second is initiated because one’s understanding has no point of connection. The former declares a law a chok because the Torah’s directive is seen to be in conflict with the conclusion of morality and ethics and so we declare the matter beyond our understanding. We are confused because we are not getting the right answer. The latter, though, declares the law a chok because we do not even have a mechanism by which to comprehend the matter. There is a difference between the realm of inherent absurdity and declaring something absurd because it contradicts the answer that we believe to be correct. In defining an inherent absurdity, we simply accept the limitation of the human mind. In declaring an absurdity because we do not understand the answer, we may also be attempting to accept the limitation of the human mind – but in a situation where the human mind is actually screaming that it has an opinion, a voice, somewhat of an ability to comprehend. The difficulty in such a situation is that the answer of chok may be, at the same time, a greater challenge to accept and also a method by which to avoid the real challenge we are facing.

          From the very beginning of our national existence, we have had to face the challenge of God commanding us in the face of opposing, even God-taught, moral perspectives. Akeidat Yitzchak,4 the binding of Yitzchak, is, of course, the most famous example of God’s command violating our moral sensitivities. Yet it is most important for us to recognize what it means when we refer to a Divine decree as a chok. It means that we leave reason behind and enter a world of absurdity. This could actually be a further reason why Avraham Avinu did not question this command from God. We can only question when there is a possibility of understanding and Avraham perceived this to be beyond the realm of understanding. In the realm of the absurd, there is no reason and explanation. Avraham, though, did eventually question and God did provide answers. In abiding by a mitzvah in the face of moral critique, are we to declare our understanding limited and accept the command as a chok, as absurd to us? Or are we to strive to declare – and understand -- the Torah directive as the correct moral response and that the reasoned moral response that the world has embraced to actually be the incorrect one. This demands a challenge to a declaration of human limitation? When is chok the correct answer and when is it simply employed as an avoidance to the challenge to think?

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht e-mail

Notes

(1)  It should be noted, though, that the division of mitzvot into these two concrete categories – commandments we understand and those we do not understand – is ultimately overly simplistic. From the fact that we do not understand some mitzvot, we learn that, for any type of mitzvah, there may be other reasons that we do not understand. From the fact, though, that there are mitzvot for which we can present reasons, we also learn that, for any type of mitzvah, there may also be reasons that we can comprehend. Thus, we still strive to understand the chok even as we also recognize that, within every mitzvah, exists the characteristic of the chok. Thus, while this division still has purpose, we are to believe that all mitzvot are, simultaneously, beyond our comprehension and also within our comprehension. Both mindsets are to exist, perhaps to variant degrees, in the performance of all mitzvot.
(2) 
There is, of course, the further debate whether the chok actually, ultimately, has a reason or whether the ultimate reason is simply that God so commanded. The first view is, perhaps the more prevalent view in declaring that there are reasons but the reasons themselves are beyond human comprehension. In a certain way, this is the approach of the kabbalistic world which projects a method by which to explain all mitzvot, including the chok, through a different realm of cause-and-effect. Pork is, for example, not to be eaten because it has properties that negatively affect the soul. The challenge of the chok, thus, is to accept this realm of cause-and-effect even though it contests human reason. A full discussion of this topic, and the nature of the chok within Jewish thought, is beyond the parameters of this Insight.
(3) 
See, further, the specific language of Rashi, Bamidbar 19:2.
(4) 
See, Bereishit 22:1-18..

(c) Nishma, 2007.


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2006 NISHMA