Explaining the Inexplicable?

Aharei Mot Kedoshim By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Apr 20, 2002 / 5762 | Main Commentary | Philosophy

In speaking of the legal corpus which dominates this week’s double parashah, the Torah makes use of two terms, mishpatim and hukkim, translated as “rules” and “laws.” Technically, as Baruch A. Levine makes clear in his commentary, they reflect two sources of legal practice. The word mishpatim deriving from the root sh-f-t, “to judge,” embodies rules articulated in a judicial setting. Hukkim from the root h-k-k “to engrave” or “inscribe” suggests laws promulgated by decree. In our parashah the terms seem to be synonymous, because God is the only lawgiver: “My rules (mishpatim) alone shall you observe, and faithfully follow My laws (hukkim): I the Lord am your God” (18:4).

For their part, the Rabbis, ever sensitive to the nuances of language, draw a far-reaching distinction between the terms. Mishpatim consist of commandments that are reasonable and self-evident, “which if they had not been promulgated would have to be, like the prohibitions against idolatry, sexual immorality, murder, theft and blasphemy”. On the other hand, hukkim represent those commandments impenetrable to reason and “susceptible to the skepticism of Satan, such as the proscription to eat pig’s meat and wear clothing made of wool and linen or the proscriptions to free the childless sister-in-law, cleanse the leper and send forth the scapegoat” (BT Yoma 67b).

The Rabbis, in short, use the variance in terminology to posit a legal system some of whose laws are rational and some of which are not. Human reason is insufficient to explain or justify every instance of God’s will. The Talmud, in the passage just cited, warns that we dare not deem unfathomable laws as an act of madness (maaseh tohu) which is why the verse ends resoundingly: “‘I the Lord am your God.’ I the Lord have decreed them and you have no right to question them.” To make their point, the Rabbis seized on the force of the root h-k-k, “to promulgate.” While understanding may enrich and fortify our observance of Torah, the fundamental demand of the Rabbis is the submission of our will to that of God’s. Faith steps in where reason falters.

With the Torah at the center of medieval Jewish thought, the problem of its inexplicable laws recurs constantly. Thus Rashi, the earliest and greatest of the Torah commentators of the Middle Ages (d. 1105 in Troyes), classifies the laws that forbid the hybridization of cattle, seeds and fabrics as hukkim, which is why the verse in our parashah that lists them starts with the term: “You shall observe My laws (hukkotai)” (19:19). Cryptically Rashi comments that the nomenclature underscores that “these are royal decrees without reason.”

A century-and-a-half later, Nachmanides who debated the Dominicans in a disputation before the King of Aragon in Barcelona in 1263, then fled to Israel and died there in 1270, rejected Rashi’s imputation that these hukkim were irrational. God had simply chosen not to reveal their rationale, admittedly denying us the satisfaction of comprehending their benefit. To forgo that belief would leave us with a God whose pronouncements were neither pure nor perfect. Nachmanides accounted the prohibitions of Kil’ayim, of “inadmissible mixtures” as an admonition not to violate the order of God’s creation. The ability of each species to reproduce itself reflected the divine seal of perfection. While some of God’s commandments are beyond our power to fathom, none are purely arbitrary and bereft of reason.

In The Kusari, an anti-philosophic tract by the greatest of Spanish Jewry’s Hebrew poets, Yehudah Halevi placed the inexplicable laws of the Torah far above its rational ones. The hukkim are what make Jews distinctive, sanctifying their special relationship to God. Rational statutes are to be found all over, even among a band of thieves, for without them organized life would be impossible. But what bestowed upon Jews the advantage of a direct experience of God are decrees such as the Sabbath and circumcision “which reason neither demands nor forbids”. “Proof of the Divine Influence is not found in well-chosen words, in raising the eyebrows, closing the eyes during prayers, contrition, movement, and talk behind which there are no deeds; but a pure mind, illustrated by corresponding actions which, by their very nature, are difficult to perform (because they are not reasonable), and are not performed with the utmost zeal and love” (trans. By H. Slonimsky, pp. 112, 117).

In accord with that scale of values, Halevi in 1140 abandoned the comfortable and prestigious life of the Spanish Jewish courtier class to settle in Israel, a pilgrimage that would cost him his life a year later.

The most original treatment of the mystifying category of hukkim, however, is by Maimonides who died in old Cairo in 1204 after a lifetime of trying to square Judaism with Aristotelian philosophy. Written in Arabic like The Kusari, The Guide of the Perplexed pioneered a historical approach to understanding the reason for the mitzvot. Since the overriding purpose of the Torah was “to put an end to idolatry, to wipe out its traces and all that is bound up with it,” one had to gain a thorough familiarity with the world of ancient paganism in order to detect the meaning of many a biblical injunction. Toward that end Maimonides immersed himself in an extensive “study of the doctrines, opinions, practices and cult of the Sabians,” as he called the idolaters of antiquity. The net result was to greatly reduce the number of inexplicable laws. For example, “The shaving of the corner of the head and of the corner of the beard has been forbidden because it was a usage of idolatrous priests. This is also the reason for the prohibition of mingled stuff, for this too was a usage of these priests, as they put together in their garments vegetable and animal substances bearing at the same time a seal made out of some mineral…” (trans. by Shlomo Pines, pp. 517, 518, 544).

In the end, what appears irrational to us is not a matter for theological speculation but historical research. The Torah is not peppered with inexplicable laws to test our loyalty. In dealing historically with its legal material, Maimonides was far ahead of his time and had no immediate followers. To be sure, he was factually wrong on almost every count, but in terms of method he was absolutely right. To understand the Bible, we must contextualize it. And that is the contribution of modern scholarship with its unearthing of an ancient Near East beyond imagination. The point is not to debunk the Bible as unoriginal, but to recognize its genius for reworking existing ideas and institutions to suit its own religious vision. Surprisingly, much also remains bracingly original.

The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat Aharei Mot K’doshim are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.