Beyond Reason: How Chukkim Safeguard Judaism in a Changing World

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by R. Eliezer Simcha Weisz

This week’s Parsha is Chukas. In the intricate make up of Jewish law, there exists a category of Mitzvot  commandments known as “chukkim” (חוקים; singular: חוקה – chukkah) that has long been a challenge to understand by the commentators’. These laws, often contrasted with more readily understandable commandments, present a unique paradox: they appear to defy rational explanation yet have played a crucial role in preserving Jewish identity throughout history.

 Understanding Chukkim in Context

To appreciate the significance of chukkim, we must first understand how they differ from other categories of Jewish law:

1. Mishpatim (משפטים): These are social laws without which society would crumble. Their purpose and benefit are clear to all.

2. Edot (עדות): These laws, such as the Passover sacrifice (קרבן פסח – Korban Pesach), serve as reminders of historical events or fundamental truths about the world. Their impact and importance are generally comprehensible.

3. Chukkim (חוקים): These are the laws that seem to lack rational explanation. A classic example is the laws of kashrut (כשרות, dietary laws), which dictate which animals are permissible for consumption without providing a clear reason for these distinctions.

The Paradox of Chukkim

At first glance, it might seem that the only way to understand chukkim is to accept them as incomprehensible Divine decrees. However, the Rambam (Maimonides) argued against this view in his work Guide for the Perplexed (Moreh Nevuchim 3:31). He pointed to a verse in Devarim(4:6) which states:

ושמרתם ועשיתם כי הוא חכמתכם ובינתכם לעיני העמים אשר ישמעון את כל־החקים האלה ואמרו רק עם־חכם ונבון הגוי הגדול הזה

Observe them carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations, who will hear about all these decrees and say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.”

ואמר: ״אשר ישמעון את כל החוקים האלה ואמרו רק עם חכם ונבון הגוי הגדול הזה״ – כבר באר שאפילו ה׳חוקים׳ כולם יורו אל כל הגוים שהם ׳בחכמה ותבונה׳ ואם היה ענין שלא תודע לו סיבה ולא יביא תועלת ולא ידחה נזק – למה יאמר במאמינו או בעושהו שהוא ׳חכם ונבון׳ וגדל המעלה ויפלאו מזה האומות?.

Again, “which shall hear all those statutes (ḥuḳḳim), and say, surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people” (ibid. 4:6). He thus says that even every one of these “statutes” convinces all nations of the wisdom and understanding it includes. But if no reason could be found for these statutes, if they produced no advantage and removed no evil, why then should he who believes in them and follows them be wise, reasonable, and so excellent as to raise the admiration of all nations?

Rambam asked: If chukkim are truly incomprehensible, how can the Torah claim that non-Jews will admire them as a sign of wisdom and understanding?

The Modern Perspective on Chukkim

It is only in recent times that we have begun to see a resolution to this paradox. The age of Enlightenment  saw European Jews gaining unprecedented access to non-Jewish society. In their eagerness to integrate, many chose to abandon practices like kashrut, reasoning that if these laws had no apparent rationale, they could be discarded without consequence.

The results of this decision are now clear: widespread assimilation among the descendants of those who abandoned these practices. This outcome provides a new lens through which to view chukkim.

The Wisdom of Chukkim Revealed

What we now understand is that chukkim, despite their apparent irrationality, have served as a powerful force for preserving Jewish identity. While every nation has its social laws (mishpatim) and commemorative rituals (edot), it is the adherence to seemingly inexplicable laws that has kept the Jewish people distinct and united throughout millennia of dispersion.

Ironically, it has often been non-Jews who recognized this phenomenon more clearly than Jews themselves. They saw that these “irrational” laws were, in fact, the very source of Jewish wisdom and understanding, functioning as a unifying force that maintained Jewish continuity against all odds.

Conclusion: The Enduring Relevance of Chukkim in Modern Times

The paradox of chukkim — laws that defy rational explanation yet prove instrumental in preserving Jewish identity — offers profound insights for our contemporary world. As we navigate an era of rapid globalization, technological advancement, and cultural homogenization, the lessons of chukkim are more relevant than ever.

1. Embracing Tradition in a Modern World: Just as our ancestors grappled with the tension between integration and tradition, we too face this challenge. The story of chukkim reminds us that practices which seem outdated or inexplicable may serve deeper purposes in maintaining our unique identity.

2. The Wisdom of Collective Experience: Chukkim embody the accumulated wisdom of generations. In an age that often prioritizes individual reasoning over communal tradition, we are reminded of the value inherent in time-tested practices, even when we don’t fully understand them.

3. Preserving Distinctiveness in a Global Society: As the world becomes increasingly interconnected, the pressure to assimilate grows stronger. Chukkim serve as a powerful counterforce, providing a framework for maintaining cultural distinctiveness without isolation.

4. Finding Meaning Beyond Rationality: In our hyper-rational age, chukkim remind us that not everything of value can be explained or justified logically. They encourage us to embrace mystery and faith alongside reason and understanding.

5. Building Community Through Shared Practice: Adherence to chukkim creates a shared experience that binds Jews across time and space. In our often fragmented modern societies, such unifying practices are more valuable than ever.

6. Resisting the Urge to Discard the Unfashionable: The historical consequences of abandoning chukkim serve as a cautionary tale. They remind us to think carefully before discarding traditions that may seem irrelevant or burdensome in the short term.

As we face the challenges of preserving Jewish identity in the 21st century, the concept of chukkim offers a powerful model. It suggests that our survival and flourishing may depend not just on adapting to the times, but also on maintaining connection with practices and traditions whose full significance may only become clear with the passage of time.

In embracing chukkim — both in their specific forms and in the broader principle they represent — we affirm our commitment to the continuity of Jewish tradition. We recognize that our identity is shaped not just by what we understand, but by what we practice, preserve, and pass on to future generations.

The mystery of chukkim, far from being an archaic concept, stands as a beacon for navigating the complexities of modern Jewish identity. It challenges us to maintain our distinctiveness, even as we engage with the broader world, and to trust in the profound wisdom embedded in our ancestral traditions. As the Torah states (Numbers 19:2):

זאת חקת התורה אשר־צוה ה’ לאמר

This is the statute (chukkah) of the Torah which the Lord has commanded.

This verse reminds us that the concept of chukkim is central to Torah observance, embodying both the mystery and the enduring power of Jewish law and tradition.

The paramount challenge facing Jewry today is not to discard customs, mores, and traditional ways of life merely because they appear old-fashioned, unreasonable, or different from the surrounding societies. On the contrary, it is precisely these chukkim-type practices that have ensured Jewish survival throughout millennia of dispersion and adversity. 

In our quest for modernity and acceptance, we must resist the temptation to abandon the very practices that have preserved our unique identity. The seemingly inexplicable customs, the dietary laws that set us apart, the Sabbath observances that punctuate our weeks – these are not archaic burdens to be shed, but the lifeblood of our continuity as a people.

It is crucial to understand that those who seek to modify, modernize, or adapt these traditional practices in an attempt to “keep up with the times” ultimately will not succeed in preserving Jewish identity. History has shown, time and again, that such attempts at modernization often lead to a slippery slope of assimilation. Gradually, the distinctive features of Jewish life are eroded, and within a few generations, these modernizing groups tend to disappear or become fully assimilated into the surrounding culture.

This pattern of assimilation is not merely a theoretical concern, but a documented historical trend. From the Hellenistic period to the modern reform movements, we have witnessed how groups that significantly altered traditional practices in the name of progress or integration eventually lost their distinctive Jewish identity. The descendants of those who abandoned or substantially modified chukkim often find themselves disconnected from their Jewish roots, lacking the very practices and beliefs that have sustained Jewish continuity for millennia.

By adhering to these traditions in their original form, we not only honor our past but secure our future. In a world that increasingly values homogeneity, the courage to remain distinct through our unwavering observance of chukkim is both a testament to our resilience and a guarantee of our survival. As we navigate the complexities of the modern world, let us remember that our strength lies not in conformity or adaptation, but in the steadfast adherence to the practices that have defined and sustained us for generations.

In this light, chukkim are not merely laws or customs, but the very pillars of Jewish existence. They are the bridge between our ancient heritage and our future survival, challenging us to maintain faith in the wisdom of our traditions even when their immediate benefits are not apparent. By embracing chukkim in their traditional form, we embrace our identity, our history, and our destiny as a people chosen to bear witness to the enduring power of Dvine wisdom in human affairs.

The lesson of chukkim, therefore, is clear: it is not through adaptation or modernization that we ensure our survival, but through steadfast commitment to our ancient traditions. In the face of a rapidly changing world, our adherence to these seemingly inexplicable practices is our strongest bulwark against assimilation and disappearance. By maintaining the integrity of our chukkim, we safeguard not just our past, but our future as a distinct and enduring people.

About Eliezer Simcha Weisz

Rabbi Eliezer Simcha Weisz is a member of The Chief Rabbinate Council of Israel

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