This week we will be reading from parashat Chukat. It begins with the mitzvah regarding the red heifer (parah adumah), without blemish, needed to purify someone who comes into contact with a dead body. It is an enigmatic commandment to say the least. First off, the Torah does not even define what ‘without blemish’ means. According to the rabbis, if it even has two black hairs, it would be considered ‘blemished.’ And secondly, the priest who performs this ritual becomes ritually impure by performing the ritual that is supposed to be used to make people ritually pure.
As Rabbi Jonathan Jaffe wrote, “Commentators struggle mightily to make sense of this ritual. In Pesikta de Rav Kahana (4:7), Rabbi Yochanan goes so far as to say there is no explanation for this mitzvah. We are not meant to understand every one of God’s commandments. His disciple, Rabbi Isaac, adds that even the wise King Solomon could not make sense of this commandment.”
Among the corpus of rabbinic writings, they can find little rational for this particular commandment. To this end, they came up with essentially two categories of mitzvot:mishpatim (judgments) and chukkim (decrees). Mishpatim are those mitzvot that make sense like do not murder, do not steal. Chukkim are more challenging for they contain laws like those involving shatnez (prohibition of mixing wool and linen), kashrut, and the parah adumah, the red heifer.
When it came to the chukkim, the general rabbinic approach has been that we may never fully understand them, yet we should not desist from them. There is beauty in their mystery. The early reformers who eventually created the Reform Movement rejected this approach. They felt only the mitzvot that were logical and rational should continue to be observed.
There was tremendous insight to the approach by these early reformers, however, by rejecting the chukkim out of hand, they also denigrated our tradition as well. The main reason for this is because human beings are not logical and rational creatures. Also, I am not a fan of defining ourselves in the negative, namely “we don’t do that because that is what the Orthodox do.”
So perhaps there is a third approach that neither binds us to the observance of illogical mitzvot, nor one that simply ignores them, and that is the re-imagining of mitzvot. For example, Kashrut was never about sanitation, it was about holy eating. It was about acknowledging the gifts of the earth and the sacrifices of animals. It was a way of potentially elevating the very act of eating to a sacred endeavor. So instead of following the laws of kashrut in their entirety, we can find ways to make eating more sacred by being more conscious of the food we are eating, who we are eating with and how we are eating.
So too with the red heifer. Death is very much a part of life. Rather than compartmentalizing it and expecting ourselves or others to simply get over it in an expeditious manner, instead embrace it as being part of the sacred journey. Death can be transformational especially when ritualized in a healthy way.
Not every mitzvah has to be logical and rational in order to provide us with pathways for meaning. Re-imaging mitzvot and making them meaningful is at the heart of what it means to be a modern Reform Jew, and opportunities abound.
Rabbi Benjamin Sharff