The Mystery of Chukim
The power of intellect is one of the most misunderstood concepts in the Western world, making this week’s parshah all the more important to understand. Parshas Chukas introduces us to the paradigmatic chok, the mitzvah of parah adumah – the Red Heifer. The common understanding is that a chok is meant to be held in contrast to a mishpat. A mishpat represents a logical and rational Torah law, such as the prohibitions of murder, adultery, and stealing. Such laws appeal to the human intellect and innate morality present within all human beings, irrespective of religion, race, or ethnicity. A chok, however, represents the unique group of Torah laws that seem to defy human logic and rational explanation, such as the parah adumah, kashrus (Jewish dietary laws), and shaatnez (the prohibition of mixing wool and linen).
If there is no logical explanation for these mitzvos, then what is their purpose? Why does Hashem command us to do something that seems to have no justifiable reason? One possibility is that this form of mitzvah engenders obedience and submission to Hashem’s will. A life of truth is a life aligned with a higher will, Hashem’s will. Such a life requires practice and discipline. One way to discipline yourself is by obeying laws, regardless of whether or not you understand them. Comprehension and understanding are valuable, but chukim are necessary to create a firm structure of pure obedience to Hashem’s will. However, there is another layer here, as well.
It is possible that while chukim do not have any rational or logical explanation, this is true only from the viewpoint of human logic and reason. In other words, there is, in fact, a reason behind chukim, but this reason transcends human reason and logic, residing in a deep spiritual realm, far beyond our intellectual capabilities. Within this line of thinking, there is an idea that while our human intellects can’t fathom or grasp the entirety of a chok’s meaning and depth, we can grasp shards of it and scratch the surface of comprehension. A clear expression of this is the fact that many Rishonim and later commentators attempted to give explanations for chukim, despite their supposed irrational status. This suggests some comprehensible characteristic to chukim, despite their elusive and transcendent nature.
The Nature of Intellect
The topic of chukim and our ability to grasp them intellectually brings up an even bigger question, albeit a simple one: What is the nature and purpose of our intellect? And in a related question, where does the use of our intellect end? Within the influence of Western culture, the intellect holds supreme status as the be-all and end-all of truth itself. Scientists, philosophers, and atheists often claim that Judaism is dogmatic and irrational, denying logic and reason. Is this so? What is the role and purpose of intellect within Judaism? Do we reject reason, embrace it, or perhaps take some sort of middle ground? The Vilna Gaon famously said, “Where philosophy ends, Jewish wisdom begins.” It seems, therefore, that Judaism does not reject reason and logic, but builds off of it, eventually even transcending it. Let us explore what this means.
The Purpose and Usefulness of Logic
Philosophy and logic are useful, and perhaps even necessary, tools in coming to know spiritual truths. For example, one of the most famous methods of proving Hashem’s existence is the “proof by design” approach. The universe is so infinitely complex and vastly beautiful, with endless layers of depth and organization. Examine just a single human cell, and you will be astounded by its sophistication. Analyze the principles of chemistry, and you will be blown by how perfectly everything fits. The only logical reaction to a universe so organized and sophisticated is to conclude that there must be a Designer who created it. Such a work of art does not simply happen by accident.
Intellect Provides Limited Knowledge
However, there are multiple problems with the use of logic, and a careful study of the previously mentioned subject shows this quite clearly. One may logically come to the conclusion of Hashem’s existence: The world is so infinitely complex; there must be a Creator behind it. However, there is a major limit to logic. Logic may help us know that Hashem exists, but it does not help us know anything about Him. We may know, through the tools of deduction, that there is a Creator, but the fact that we have logic does not allow us to experience Hashem, or connect with Him. This is the very nature of negative theology. Philosophers never tell you what God is. They tell you only what He is not. He is not finite, emotional, or within time. But where does that leave us? It leaves us with a God that is unknowable and completely removed from us. Therefore, it seems that our human intellect does have boundaries, ones that actually confine us immeasurably.
Inherent Limitations of the Intellect
Moving from the specific topic of belief in God to a more general understanding of the human intellect, there are other clear limits to the extent that logic can and should be used. Immanuel Kant, an 18th century philosopher, revolutionized the study of philosophy by questioning the very validity of human intellect in the first place. (It is essential to point out that while in the Western world, Kant is credited with this novel idea, Jewish thinkers have already been teaching this concept for thousands of years.) He proposed the following idea: The entirety of physical human experience is transmitted through our five senses. Our conception of the physical world is based solely on our personal and subjective experience. We don’t experience reality itself; we experience reality only as it is subjectively experienced through the filter of our physical senses. We imagine that sounds are the way we hear them, sight is the way we see them, and tastes are the way we, personally, perceive them. However, the idea that our “translation system” – our five senses – allow us to sense things as they truly are is merely an assumption. There is no way of knowing if the world as I experience it is identical to the world as it truly is. Similarly, there is no way of knowing if the world as I experience it is identical to the world as you experience it. Meaning, that we could each be living in our own subjective reality
Following this line of reasoning, human logic is very limited. After all, the rules of physics and logic are based on our limited perception of a physical reality. And if reality is beyond our limited intellectual perception, we may be using the wrong tools to understand the ultimate truth.
This is the view that the Ramban takes, articulating this point in his commentary to Sefer Vayikra (Vayikra 16:8). The Ramban criticizes the idea of logic being the ultimate tool for obtaining the truth, using the Greek philosophers as a paradigm of those who made this mistake – they denied anything that their intellects could not grasp, anything they could not scientifically quantify. They therefore created a limited subjective truth, confined only to that which they could explain logically. The fault in this lies in the simple fact that rational knowledge is always limited.
If this is true, then what did the Vilna Gaon mean when he said: “Where philosophy ends, Jewish wisdom begins”? What is it exactly that transcends reason and logic? The answer is as follows: There is a deeper form of wisdom, one that we can refer to as post-rational and experiential wisdom. This is a state of consciousness that cannot be put into words, that exists in the spiritual realm of truth, and that the intellectual and philosophical mind cannot grasp. These truths cannot be proven, but they can be known deep within the bedrock of one’s soul. This should not be confused with the irrational, and should also not be confused with emotional experience. These truths do not contradict reason; they simply cannot be explained by it.
Y’tzias Mitzrayim vs. Matan Torah
In Daas T’vunos, the Ramchal explains that this is the very difference between the miracles of Y’tzias Mitzrayim and the miracle of Matan Torah. The miracles of Y’tzias Mitzrayim merely revealed Hashem’s existence. Through the ten Makos, K’rias Yam Suf, and the miracles in the midbar, Hashem revealed to both klal Yisrael and the world as a whole that He exists. There was, however, no experiential knowledge of Hashem, nothing other than an external awareness through experiences using our five senses. Matan Torah was a miracle of a completely different category; it was experiential, whereby each member of klal Yisrael had a personal experience of n’vuah – where each individual had a post-rational, consciousness-expanding, transcendent experience of Hashem Himself. We didn’t witness Hashem outside ourselves; we experienced Him within our consciousness, within ourselves, beyond the limitations of reason and intellect.
The Purpose of Chukim
This is the purpose of a chok, a mitzvah that our intellect cannot fully grasp. It is to teach us this important principle: that truth itself lies beyond logic and reason. Logic may lead us to it, but ultimately, truth resides in a realm beyond reason. This is why chochmah (wisdom) always resides in a realm that transcends binah (intellect/logic). Intellect is the prerequisite to wisdom and truth. Only by recognizing the limitations of intellect can we ever experience a deeper truth. It is for this reason that so many commentators do not think that a chok is only a means to submission and obedience. There is, in fact, a meaning behind it, but that explanation lies beyond the human intellect. This leads us to a deep revelation. The reason why many commentators, oddly enough, give rational explanations to the chukim is perhaps an expression of everything we have just explained. Truth is beyond the rational or the post-rational and experiential; it contains both. Judaism does not reject the rational, but sees it as a stepping stone to something transcendent. The rational is not rejected, but rather is used as a stage in the process. This is true of chukim, as well: The rational explanations are merely an expression of their transcendent, post-rational truth.
The Power of Experience
You cannot understand any deep spiritual truth without experiencing it. You can talk about Torah, spirituality, Hashem, t’filah, and mitzvos all you want, but until Torah life becomes an experiential reality, one that is more than intellectual or emotional truth, it will remain limited and incomplete. The journey of a Jew is the journey of emunah, of faithfulness, of seeking out higher and more genuine expressions of truth. May we be inspired to enjoy every step of that process, to embark on a genuine journey towards truth, and to endlessly expand our experiential and existential understanding of the ultimate truth.