The Torah reading of Chukat opens with the laws of the red cow, which are regarded in the Jewish tradition as among the most mysterious of the laws of the Torah. The laws of the red cow regulate the process of purification for one who comes into contact with a dead body thereby becoming impure. According to the laws (Numbers 19, 1- 22), a red cow, which has no blemish and has not been used for work (Numbers 19, 2) is ritually slaughtered and burned (Numbers 19, 3 and 5) together with cedar wood, hyssop and scarlet (Numbers 19, 6) – and, the ashes are added to water to be sprinkled upon one who is impure due to contact with a dead body (Numbers 19, 17-19). Furthermore, and this is the mysterious aspect, all those who prepare the ashes and water for sprinkling as well as the one who sprinkles become impure in the process of purifying the one who came into contact with a dead body (Numbers 19, 6-10 and 19).
This passage relating to the red cow begins by saying that these laws are a statute (chukat) of law (Torah) – “This is the statute of law which the Lord has commanded” (Numbers 19, 2). The term Torah (תורה) is from a Hebrew root (הוראה) that means instruction or guidance, and is the central concept of the Jewish tradition. The term Torah has a number of different usages ranging from law, the 5 books of Moses, the Bible as a whole, the Jewish tradition based upon the Bible (Judaism), to wisdom of a universal nature. At the beginning of the Torah reading Chukat, the term Torah in the phrase “This is the statute of Torah” (Numbers 19, 2) means law – so, the phrase means “This is the statute (chukat) of law (Torah)”.
The term mitzvah is also a central term in the Bible and the Jewish rabbinic tradition, and literally means commandment or obligation. The term can have both a narrow legal meaning as a legal commandment (“do not cook a kid in its mother’s milk”), or a broad non-legal meaning as any good deed that is a moral or spiritual obligation (“you shall do that which is righteous and good in the eyes of the Lord”). The Torah (the 5 Books of Moses) as a legal constitution of the Jewish people contains mitzvot (commandments), upon which the Jewish law is based.
The terms chukim (חוקים), edot (עדות) and mishpatim (משפטים) are Biblical terms and represent different types of legal commandments (and, the term chukim is of the same root as the word chukat that appears at the beginning of the Torah reading Chukat). According to the Jewish tradition, there are two basic types of legal commandments – chukim and mishpatim. Chukim (statutes) are regarded as non-rational commandments, such as the Biblical prohibition of eating pork – and, regarding such non-rational commandments, we would not know on the basis of human reason that they should be commanded if they were not commanded by the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses). Mishpatim (judgments) are regarded as rational commandments, such as the prohibition of murder – and, regarding such rational commandments, we would know on the basis of human reason that they should be commanded even had they not been commanded by the Torah. Edot (testimonies) are a specific category of chukim that are commemorative in nature.
There is an ancient view with roots in the Talmudic tradition that chukim (statutes), which are by definition not rational are to be observed simply as a matter of obedience even without understanding the reason for the command. The supreme example of a chok (statute) is the red cow – and, there is a Talmudic source relating to the statute of the red cow that presents such a position that chukim are to be observed simply as a matter of obedience (Bamidbar Rabbah 19, 8):
An idolater asked Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, “These rituals you do, they seem like witchcraft! You bring a red cow, burn it, crush it up, and take its ashes. You sprinkle two or three drops on one of you who is impure by the dead, and you declare him pure?”. He (Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai) said to him…”Have you ever seen a man where a restless spirit entered him?”. He said to him, “Yes”. He (Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai) said to him, “And what did you do for him?”. He said to him, “We brought roots and made them smoke beneath him, and pour water and it flees”. He said to him, “Your ears should hear what comes out of your mouth! The same thing is true for this spirit, the spirit of impurity…They sprinkle upon him purifying waters, and it (the impurity) flees”. After he left, his students said, “You pushed him off with a reed. What will you say to us?”. He said to them, “By your lives, a dead person doesn’t make things impure, and the water doesn’t make things pure. Rather, God said, ‘I have engraved a rule, I have decreed a decree (chok), and you have no permission to transgress what I decreed, as it says “This is a chok (statute) of Torah (law)”.
This approach of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai is an authoritarian approach in demanding blind obedience regardless of reason or conscience – and, in my eyes, is very problematic from a philosophic point of view. On the one hand, he acknowledges that the purification process of the red cow is similar to ritual practices of witchcraft – and, yet, on the other hand, he argues that the command to purify according to the laws of the red cow is a statute that we are to obey even though there is no rational reason for it and it is really no different in principle than ritual practices of witchcraft. I will leave aside here, for the moment, the difficult philosophic question that is raised here – are we to be obedient to a command of God even when we perceive on the basis of our own reason and conscience that the command is irrational or immoral? I point out that Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai is not offering symbolic reasons for the command and ritual of the red cow such that observance of the command and ritual might be meaningful to us even though we do not ultimately know the reason for the command and ritual – he is instead arguing that we are to be obedient to the command simply because it is a command regardless of out reason or conscience.
I want to suggest that such an authoritarian, philosophic approach of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai is in contradiction to the humanistic spirit of the Hebrew Bible. There is an ancient question attributed to Plato as to whether God commands an act because it is moral (implying that there is an independent standard of morality to which God is bound) or an act is moral because it is commanded by God (implying an authoritarian approach in which the command of God is moral by virtue of the authority of God). In the Biblical conception, in my view, God commands an act because it is moral, as reflected in Abraham’s question in relation to the decree of God to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah – “will the Judge of all the earth not do justice?” (Genesis 18, 25). The ideal that Abraham exemplifies in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah is a humanistic ideal in which he is portrayed as a person of reason and moral conscience.
The implications here are enormous – in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, God is bound by an independent standard of morality no less than Abraham and human beings. Morality is a realm that is independent of God’s commands. In the contrary view that an act is moral because it is commanded by God (as a matter of authority) the realm of morality is dependent upon God’s commands and authority or power. According to such an authoritarian view, there is no room for Abraham’s question “Will the Judge of all the earth not do justice?”. The commands and decrees of God would be moral by definition simply by virtue of being commanded by God as a matter of authority and power.
The story of the binding of Isaac is the one glaring exception in the Bible that seemingly reflects this authoritarian view that an act, such as the sacrifice of Isaac, is moral because God so commands it, and therefore Abraham is unquestioningly obedient to the authority of God. However, in my view, this is a misunderstanding of the story and the story does not reflect this authoritarian view that an act is moral because God commands it as a matter of authority and power.
From a historical point of view, the story of the binding of Isaac is an attack upon child sacrifice as a form of ritual rite and worship – a custom and rite that existed in the ancient near east, as recorded in the Bible. According to such an understanding of the story, Abraham is unquestioningly willing to carry out the command of God to sacrifice Isaac not because he is obedient despite the command violating his reason or conscience. If the command violated Abraham’s reason or conscience, we learn from the previous story of Sodom and Gomorrah that he would have protested – “Will the Judge of all the earth not do justice?”. If, on behalf of wicked people who he does not know, he protested, then surely on behalf of his son, innocent of wrongdoing, he would have protested – had the command indeed violated his reason or conscience.
Abraham is unquestioningly obedient because he does not perceive the command to be immoral at all – as child sacrifice was an accepted custom and rite in the Biblical world. On a historical level, the conflict that Abraham faces is not one of personal human reason and conscience, on the one hand, and the external authority of God’s will, on the other hand – rather, the conflict is between his natural love for his beloved child, on the one hand, and his devotion and loyalty to God, on the other hand. The story is teaching on a historical level that child sacrifice is unacceptable as a form of devotion to God to be replaced by animal sacrifice.
The name Israel in the Bible, the name of the Jewish people, literally means to wrestle with God (Genesis 32, 29) – the opposite of blind obedience. Our greatest figures of the Bible, Abraham and Moses, are depicted as people who wrestle even with God. Abraham in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah questions God’s justice “Will the Judge of all the earth not do justice?” (Genesis 18, 25), and holds God accountable to Abraham’s own subjective conception of justice. Rashi (the great commentator of the 11th century) on the verse (Genesis 18, 23) “And Abraham drew near”, in which Abraham begins to argue with God, interprets the phrase “drew near” to mean among other things to make war by uttering harsh words. Rashi understands that Abraham, among other things, is actually fighting with God.
Moses not only argues with God (Exodus 32, 11-14) when God is determined to destroy the people Israel after the making of the golden calf but actually demands that God repent! Moses says to God, “Turn from Your fierce anger, and repent of this evil against Your people” (Exodus 32, 12), and the passage concludes by saying, “And the Lord repented of the evil which He thought to do to His people” (Exodus 32, 14). Moses thus goes even further than Abraham. Abraham, in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, questions, and argues with, God. But, there is no indication that Abraham demands of God to rescind the decree to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. Moses not only questions and argues, but actually demands that God rescind the decree to destroy the Israelites, and calls God’s decree evil – and, Scripture agrees with Moses in terming the decree of God evil in saying that God repented of the evil (Exodus 32, 14)!
Thus, to question and wrestle with God is not only not seen as forbidden or heretical in the Biblical conception but this is the very essence of what it means to be a Jew as reflected in the name Israel. Neither Abraham nor Moses assume that the decrees of God are by definition moral as a matter of authority.
I want to cite a remarkable case in the Bible indicating that in the Biblical conception of religion the ideal is not an authoritarian ideal of blind obedience. At the beginning of the Book of Deuteronomy, which is written in the form of a speech given by Moses to the Israelites prior to entering the land of Canaan, Moses tells that he was given an explicit command by God to make war against Sichon, the Amorite king (Deuteronomy 2, 24). Moses had already told the Israelites that he had been given explicit commands by God not to make war against various other peoples, such as the children of Esau (Deuteronomy 2, 5), the Moabites (Deuteronomy 2, 9) and the Ammonites (Deuteronomy 2, 19). Moses tells the Israelites his response to the command of God to make war against Sichon – “And I sent messengers…to Sichon, king of Heshbon with words of peace” (Deuteronomy 2, 26). The plain meaning of the verse is that Moses reveals that he violated the express command of God to make war against Sichon, and, instead, chose to first attempt to make peace with Sichon. Only after Sichon refused peace was Moses then willing to make war with him (Deuteronomy 2, 30).
Moses does not reveal his motivations and considerations in seeking peace with Sichon, rather than making war upon him immediately according to the Divine command. But, whether Moses’ considerations were pragmatic or a matter of moral principle, Moses violates the express command and will of God on the basis of his own subjective evaluation and judgment regarding the situation. Moses decides on the basis of his own human understanding and judgment to seek peace with Sichon prior to making war upon him, violating the very will and command of God, and thus is not blindly obedient – and, if the commands of God were by definition moral as a matter of authority and power, then there would be no room for such an autonomous decision of Moses to violate the command of God on the basis of his own conscience. By the way, there is a remarkable midrash (rabbinic commentary) according to which the Biblical command (Deuteronomy 20, 10) given by God to offer peace before making war (“When you draw near unto a city to fight against it, then proclaim peace unto it”) was learned by God from Moses who violated a Divine decree in attempting to make peace with Sichon before being willing to go to war with him (Tanchuma Tzav 3).
In the Guide of the Perplexed (3, 31), Maimonides (the great legal scholar and philosopher of the 12th century) presents a remarkable theological position in which he argues that all the commandments of the Torah are ultimately rational, and fulfill some purpose. What stands behind this argument is his assumption that God is rational and would not command something arbitrary that did not serve some purpose. The obvious problem concerns the distinction in the Jewish tradition between mishpatim (judgments) and chukim (statutes). In the Jewish tradition, mishpatim are understood to be rational and would be obligatory even if not commanded by the Torah (such as the prohibition of murder), while chukim are understood to be revelatory in nature, and do not make sense on the basis of human reason (such as dietary laws). According to Maimonides, this is actually a false distinction from the point of view of God, since all commandments must be rational in relation to God, otherwise God would be viewed as arbitrary. It is only from our limited human perspective that some commandments, chukim, do not make sense – due to our limited human understanding and knowledge.
Maimonides cites (the Guide 3, 31) a supporting text from the Book of Deuteronomy (4, 6) – “for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the nations, who shall hear these statutes (chukim), and say, surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people”. Maimonides points out that according to the verse, strikingly, it is the chukim, the apparently non-rational commandments that will impress non-Jews such that they will appreciate the wisdom and understanding of the Jewish people. Maimonides in this remarkable interpretation of the verse is suggesting that not only must we, as Jews, attempt to understand and make intelligible the apparently non-rational commandments of the Torah, but we must try to make them intelligible, to the best of our limited ability, even to non-Jews, so that they too will appreciate the wisdom of the Jewish people. I emphasize that according to Maimonides, the statutes (chukim) of Torah are not to be obeyed simply as a matter of authority, which would imply that God is arbitrary, but because they are rational and make sense – and regarding those commandments that do not apparently make sense, we must as Jews make sense of them so that they make sense even to non-Jews.