אֶת מִשְׁפָּטַי תַּעֲשׂוּ וְאֶת חֻקֹּתַי תִּשְׁמְרוּּ – You shall fulfill My ordinances and observe My statutes.
Generally, chukim seem to be irrational: if not for the divine imperative, we would never observe them. We assume a divine purpose and value, but we cannot fathom them. Mishpatim, on the other hand, reflect cultural and humanistic considerations. Yet the force of the divine command applies to both, demanding observance and unqualified commitment.
Rashi (Num. 19:2) cites a Rabbinic comment on the parah adumah rite: It is a decree ordained by Me. You have no right to question it. This suggests that the chok can be defined as an absolute norm and an ultimate command, demanding total submission without reservations. It is to be affirmed even if Satan and the nations of the world taunt Israel, ridiculing its irrationality. The observant Jew accepts the Torah even as a patient follows the prescription of his doctor, taking complex medications and submitting to required surgical procedures. We may seek to understand and make all possible inquiries, but ultimately we accept it on faith. The Lord, Creator and Healer of all flesh, undoubtedly knows what is best for our bodies and souls as well as what is harmful to them.
The chok may be said to possess two characteristics. The first is its universal immutability: the fact that a chok is independent of situational factors, changing philosophies and ideologies, or shifting practical and economic conditions. All these have no effect or bearing on a chok, which persists and retains its value under all circumstances, at all times and everywhere. Obviously, only an absolute faith in God as the Legislator of the chok could motivate such acceptance.
Etymologically, the root ח-ק-ק signifies the act of carving, engraving, making incisions in a hard surface such as stone or metal. Several verses support this meaning: Behold, I have graven you [חַקֹּתִיךְ] upon the palms of my hands (Is. 49:16); Oh that My words were…engraven [וְיֻחָקוּ] with an iron pen and lead in the rock forever (Job 19:23-24). Such engravings are protected against the erosion of time and the elements. Used in religious law, the term signifies that the chok is characterized by perpetual validity and is engraven in the rock forever. Chok implies eternity; it is not a temporary regulation.
Nature’s laws are also chukim, unalterable and universal. The same Legislator instituted both systems of law, governing physical nature as well as man’s deportment. The Bible uses the word chok in regard to nature, as in Proverbs 8:29: When He gave to the sea His decree [חֻקּוֹ], that the waters should not transgress His commandment; when he appointed [בְּחוּקוֹ] the foundations of the earth. Nature is not capricious; it unfailingly abides by God’s laws, even as man should in the human realm. There are no exceptions or surprises. Nature is reliable and predictable and its laws are universally valid.
The second characteristic of the chok is its incomprehensibility: it demands the surrender of one’s mind and the suspension of one’s thinking. It is a total commitment precisely because it requires an abdication of one’s reason. The commitment of a child to his parents, however fervent, is not total; it is rooted in the family setting and has many qualifications and reservations. A parent’s commitment to a child, however, is instinctive and total; it is irrational and therefore not contingent or conditional. The reason for the chok remains a mystery. Indeed, the chok is often contested by one’s thinking mind. Although man is a rational being, the chok demands that he violate his reason.
Laws which are based on intellect are vulnerable to modification, correction, or reinterpretation. The intellect is able to build and tear down, to create and to destroy; it continually reevaluates and postulates anew. The history of science is a chronicle of the construction and destruction of ideas, theories, affirmations, and negations. The chok, however, rises above human reason and motivation. A chok is unchanging because it is not subject to reason. It is in the non-cognitive dimension and is therefore not susceptible to change, not modified by the attrition of time and mood.
The religious Jew accepts the entire Torah as a chok, both in regard to its immutability and its incomprehensibility. At the conclusion of the daily morning service, we find this affirmation: I believe with perfect faith that this Torah will not be changed and that there will be no other Torah given by the Creator, blessed be His Name (The Thirteen Principles of Faith). The laws of the Torah are above place or time. The observant Jew never asks “Why?” in regard to mitzvah obligations. He may ask, “How is it performed?” or, “What lessons are to be derived therefrom?” but not, “Why?”
We perform all mishpatim (mostly social laws) in the same manner as the chukim. The Torah does not assign separate sections to the chukim and mishpatim; they are interspersed throughout Scripture. We make no distinctions between the two in the quality and totality of our commitment.
In our modern world, there is hardly a mishpat which has not been repudiated. Stealing and corruption are the accepted norms in many spheres of life; adultery and general promiscuity find support in respectable circles; and even murder, medical and germ experiments have been conducted with governmental complicity. The logos has shown itself in our time to be incapable of supporting the most basic of moral inhibitions.
The Torah, therefore, insists that a mishpat be accepted as a chok; our commitment must be unshakable, universally applicable, and upheld even when our logos is confused. Without chok, every social and moral law can be rationalized away, leaving the world a sophisticated jungle of instincts and impulses. Even a mishpat can endure only when it is sustained by an unmotivated commitment which is impervious to confusing circumstances. (Reflections, Vol. 1, pp. 100-105; see Appendix A in Chumash Mesoras HaRav Sefer Shemos)