The Mystery of the Red Heifer
This week’s Torah reading opens with one of the most mysterious and incomprehensible rituals in the entire Bible. Numbers 19:1–22 describes the ritual of the red heifer—the complex practice that allows a person who has come in contact with a dead body to become “purified” of the contamination (tu’mah) that accompanies connection to those who have died. A red heifer is slaughtered, its body and blood are burned in a fire with certain woods and plants, and the ashes that remain after that burning are used in a mixture with water to create a kind of paste that is sprinkled on those who have come in contact with a corpse. The sprinkling of this “water of lustration” (in the New Jewish Publication Society translation) allows the contaminated person to return to the community freed from the tu’mah related to contact with the dead. Adding to the mystery is the fact that those who are impure become purified, but those who are already pure and then come in contact with the ashes of the heifer become impure (Num. 19:10).
This passage in the Torah has troubled interpreters throughout the ages, going back to the earliest figures of rabbinic Judaism. There is, for example, a famous story (Numbers Rabbah 19:8) about Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai (the great Sage who lived around the time of the destruction of the Second Temple), who was asked by a pagan about the ritual of the red heifer. Isn’t this a form of witchcraft, the pagan remarked? Yohanan replied that in fact it is something very much familiar to the pagan himself: it is a kind of Jewish version of an exorcism ritual. Yohanan’s explanation satisfied the pagan, but once the pagan left, Yohanan’s students pressed him further: “Master, you brushed him off with a piece of straw! But what are you going to say to us?!” Yohanan answered them: “It is not the dead that defiles nor the water that purifies! The Holy One, blessed be He, says: ‘I have laid down a statute (hukkah), I have issued a decree. You are not allowed to transgress my decree’; as it is written: ‘This is the ritual law (hukkat ha Torah) that the Lord has commanded'” (Num. 19:2).
The pagan is told that it is like a ritual for exorcism, but the students are told it is about our obedience to God. The term hukkah or hok becomes the word in classical Jewish parlance for rituals without any obvious rational meaning, in contradistinction to mishpatim (judgments) that refer to laws such as the prohibition on murder or theft that have an obvious reason in the functioning of a civil society. As Maimonides puts it succinctly in the Guide for the Perplexed(III:26): “Those commandments, whose object is generally evident, are called ‘judgments’ (mishpatim); those whose object is not generally clear are called ‘ordinances’ (hukkim).”
It is interesting that Maimonides hedges his bets here. The phrase about commandments, where a reason is “generally evident” or not “generally clear,” suggests that beneath the surface there is a reason. It is just not “clear” on the surface. This puts Maimonides fully at odds with our story of Yohanan ben Zakkai, whose interpretation of the ritual is that it is fundamentally a test of our obedience to God’s will. Indeed, Yohanan does not only include the red heifer in his dismissal of any meaning associated with the ritual; he also includes the whole matter of the “dead defiling,” a core principle in biblical religion.
The Maimonidean view did not begin in the Middle Ages as we might suspect. Traces of the view that there is a reason behind the ritual may be found in the earlier rabbinic tradition as well. In the midrashic work Numbers Rabbah, right next to the story of Yohanan and the pagan questioner, we have another text (19:6), much less familiar, stated in the name of R. Yose ben Hanina who said: “The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Moses: ‘To you will I disclose the reason for the heifer, but to anybody else it is a statute (hukkah).'”
Thus, interpreters throughout Jewish history have largely divided along two lines about the ritual of the red heifer: those who have tried to explain it with reasons—either rational or mystical—and those who have said that the very point of the ritual is that it has no meaning, that it teaches us about obedience to God. And who, after all, is the “rationalist” here—Rabban Yohanan or Maimonides? It is not so simple to discern. Although we might consider Maimonides the exemplar of medieval rationalist philosophy, his view about the red heifer ritual, for all its rational sheen, is at heart a kind of mystical view: there must be a reason here, he seems to be saying. Nothing this strange could be without a purpose. Perhaps he is pushing things too hard, perhaps R. Yohanan is the true man of reason when he states, in his own way, an idea along these lines: “Let’s not push and prod too much. Let’s not assume that there is a specific rationale here. It is a kind of test. Just take the test and obey. And stop worrying about its secret purpose.”
But oddly enough, in our time the ritual seems less perplexing. We have been schooled sufficiently by cultural anthropology and by figures like Clifford Geertz and Mary Douglas to face rituals of this sort considerably less distressed than our ancestors may have been. From Claude Lévi-Strauss and Mircea Eliade, we know about oppositional pairs in religion and in culture such as pure and impure (tamei and tahor). Purifying waters that also defile fit into a pattern that begins to make sense. Cultures seem to gravitate toward oppositional figures; these figures help make sense of the world. We distinguish the raw and the cooked, the forces of light and the forces of darkness. We humans are comfortable in those precise categories. But when things are on the edges, when they cross borders, we are a lot less certain. Anthropologists refer to this as the crisis or confusion around “liminality,” the threshold of boundary. Throughout human history we have built rituals around liminal states that function like a mezuzah on a doorpost, staving off the confusion of the boundary.
Of all borders, none is so frightening as that between life and death. The individual who has touched the dead body has come in contact with the border that none of us wishes to cross. He or she is between the two polarities of life and death and, throughout human history, it is ritual that allows us to negotiate those boundaries. Parashat Hukkat is a particularly appropriate time for all of us to rethink our connection to ritual in our lives, to see the power of meaning that ritual can provide, and to reflect once again on the complexity and beauty of the rituals that we in our tradition call mitzvot. Mitzvot allow us to forge a life of purpose, even as we wonder at the most mysterious of all Jewish rituals, the red heifer.
The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.