Chukat: Service from Love

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Chukat

In addition to all those memorable days, we’re also reading the Torah
portion Chukat, which has no mitzvot which are currently practiced as
such, but which opens up with wording which leads to an important
discussion relating to the mitzvot- religious commandments – as a whole.

The first verses of Chukat concern the “red heifer”- the red cow which
was sacrificed in a complex ceremony connected to ritual purity. Thus
we read in the JPS translation:

“The Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying: ‘This is the ritual law
that the Lord has commanded. . .’ ” (Bamidbar/Numbers 19:1-2)

The first words of the second clause- “zot chukat hatorah” – give the
portion its name, but it’s a hard phrase to translate. For the key
word “chukat,” which is a form of “chok,” JPS has “ritual law,” but
other translations use “statute,” “decree,” or simply imply the idea
of a commandment or imperative. Rashi explains that this word, “chok,”
is used because the nations of the world will demand a rational
explanation for the ritual of the red heifer and Israel can respond
that it is a decree – that is, a religious practice which comes from
revelation, not from reason.

In many discussions of the mitzvot, a distinction is thus drawn
between chukkim- decrees- and mishpatim, or laws which could be
derived from reason or principles of justice. [The word “mishpat” is
related to the idea of justice and the fair governance of society.] To
put it another way, mishpatim are commandments that reasonable people
could figure out on their own (for example, don’t steal, lie, or
murder.) Chukkim are practices which have no obvious basis in fairness
or rationality- like not mixing linen and wool, or not eating ham, or
as we learn this week, sacrificing a red heifer to make what is
sometimes called “waters of lustration.” (Lustration = purification,
more or less.)

Figuring out which mitzvot are chukkim and which are mishpatim would
take a long time- and never yield consensus- and many commentators
find “ritual” meaning in the “ethical” mitzvot, and vice verse. Yet I
still think the idea of chukkim- mitzvot which we can’t reduce to
purely rational principles- is an important one, because for me, it’s
connected to the idea of serving out of love.

Think for a moment about your love for a spouse/ partner, a friend, or
another family member- I’ll bet there are things you do for that
person, to please them and make them happy, which comes from knowledge
of that person’s preferences, tastes and idiosyncrasies. You might
cook certain foods or find decorations of a certain color simply
because that’s what this particular person likes and doing those
things deepens the relationship. The actions may seem arbitrary-
baking raisin cookies rather than snickerdoodles- but the reason for
doing it is anything but: your friend or loved one likes raisin
cookies and making them is an action which makes love real.

Thus, to me, chukkim are those aspects of Judaism which I do because I
love God (as the Divine Source), Torah and the Jewish people- or,
perhaps more precisely, because I want to love God, Torah and the
Jewish people. I won’t lightly override my conscience to obey ritual
law, but I’ll celebrate Shabbat on Saturday, rather than Sunday,
because that’s what my relationship to the Holy One, Torah and Israel

I’ll wear certain clothes and eat certain foods and pray certain
prayers because these actions are the expression of my particular
connection to my faith, my people, my history, and my spiritual path.
Chukkim, to me, are what make Judaism . . . . well, Judaism, and not
just some abstract ethical monotheism. The rational laws connect Jews
to universal moral ideals; the chukkim, “decrees,” celebrate the
possibility of a unique Jewish spirituality. Both are good, and both
are gifts from Heaven.

Shabbat Shalom,


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