web analytics
March 27, 2015 / 7 Nisan, 5775
At a Glance
InDepth
Sponsored Post


Home » InDepth » Op-Eds »
PARSHAH NOTES

Chukkat: How Far Can our Understanding of Torah Reach?

How can that substance which purifies the contaminated also render impure the uncontaminated priest who prepared it?
A red heifer is sacrificed, burnt and its ashes, mixed with water, are sprinkled on Jews who contracted the impurity of a dead person.

A red heifer is sacrificed, burnt and its ashes, mixed with water, are sprinkled on Jews who contracted the impurity of a dead person.

By Howard Zik

Parshat Chukkat dealing with the sacrifice of the red heifer is often alluded to as representing the upper limits of our capacity in understanding Torah.

The Midrash relates that Solomon himself despaired of any understanding of it (Num. R:19:3) and some commentators have used it as an example to demonstrate that some Torah decrees have the status of being impossible to understand, capturing this notion in the very meaning of the term chukim or decrees, while at the same time professing that their observance elevates one spiritually.

Yet the Talmud and the history of Jewish ideas reveal that the quest to acquire some understanding of these decrees goes on. This conflict raises the crucial question How far can our understanding of Torah reach? I believe that a response to this question can be provided which speaks to the value of the relevance of a philosophy that is rooted in distinctly Jewish sources.

The paradox of the red heifer resides in the fact that the ashes of this burnt animal are mixed with fresh water to purify one who came in contact with the dead, while at the same time the preparation of these ashes renders impure the priest who concocts them.

How can that substance which purifies the contaminated also render impure the uncontaminated priest who prepared it? The difficulty in resolving this paradox is often joined with the claim that following such seemingly absurd decrees show the virtue of our humility, recognizing the limitations on our reason.

This then raises the question of whether humility requires a complete abandonment of reason and the human capacity to acquire insight.

It would be of value to note that there are degrees in understanding in all realms of knowledge. In the sciences, for example, theoretical physicists are still struggling to develop a comprehensive theory that encompasses what we know of minute matter and the galaxies, bridging quantum physics (more suited for micro matter) and relativity (better when dealing with the galaxies).

In Guide to the Perplexed, Maimonides prefaces his logical demonstration of the existence of God as the first cause, by reminding the reader that certainty is impossible in this area (while his demonstration is professed to be only more likely than the alternatives).

This, however, does not in any way preclude knowledge in such instances, but rater allows that knowledge can be partial, and, even more significantly, places us in a created universe where such knowledge can become more complete with the passage of time.

Moreover, the underlying concept of the Oral Torah in Jewish thought is particularly well suited to this scenario, as the Oral Torah represents an ongoing interpretation, which, as the contemporary scholar Norman Cohen points out, represents the boundless potential for rendering the Torah “understandable in the generation in which it was given and to all subsequent generations.”

In this sense it is truly as the rabbis described it “like black fire written on white fire.”

About the Author:


If you don't see your comment after publishing it, refresh the page.

Our comments section is intended for meaningful responses and debates in a civilized manner. We ask that you respect the fact that we are a religious Jewish website and avoid inappropriate language at all cost.

If you promote any foreign religions, gods or messiahs, lies about Israel, anti-Semitism, or advocate violence (except against terrorists), your permission to comment may be revoked.

No Responses to “Chukkat: How Far Can our Understanding of Torah Reach?”

Comments are closed.

Current Top Story
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
Netanyahu to Release Frozen Palestinian Authority Tax Revenue
Latest Indepth Stories
Islamic Relief Worldwide Logo

In November 2014, Islamic Relief Worldwide was classified as a terrorist organization by the United Arab Emirates.

Safran-032715

Too rarely appreciated for its symbolic weight; it can represent freedom and independence.

Erica Pelman is a spiritually-driven woman. She is founder and director of “In Shifra’s Arms” (ISA), an organization that offers aid to pregnant Jewish women of all religious backgrounds practically, financially and emotionally. Its arms are open to any pregnant woman in need whether single, divorced, separated, or from a financially-strapped family. “Presently, we are […]

Gerstenfeld-032715

Many so-called “humanitarian NGOs” frequently abuse Israel by applying false moral equivalencies

Israeli history now has its version of “Dewey Defeats Truman” with headlines from 2 anti-Bibi papers

In God’s plan why was it necessary that Moses be raised by Pharaoh, away from his own family&people?

In their zechus may we all come to appreciate that life is a fleeting gift and resolve to spend every precious moment of it as if it were the last.

In any event, Mr. Netanyahu after the election sought to soften his statement on Palestinian statehood and apologized for what he conceded were remarks that “offended some Israeli citizens and offended members of the Israeli Arab community.”

A worthy idea any way you look at it.

There is something quite distinctive about the biblical approach to time.

The Waqf kept control of the Temple Mount due to Dayan’s “magnanimity in victory” after 6 Day war

The event promotes “1 state” solution (end of Israel as a Jewish State), BDS, lawfare against Israel

I rescued you?! You’re doing me a favor letting me help you!

“Tzedakah tatzil mi-mavet: Charity saves from death”; No death & a tax break? Where do I sign up?

More Articles from Guest Author
Parshat Tzav

Why does Torah make the priests go through a long and seemingly bizarre induction ceremony?

Haggadah for the Passover Seder.

Nothing beats some preparation to make it a memorable Seder!

{Jonathan Greenberg is a guest columnist and this article originally appeared on the Breitbart.com website} J Street, a progressive organization funded primarily by far-left individuals who are critical of Israeli policy and more sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, is holding its annual conference this week in Washington. At a morning session titled “What’s Next for Palestinian Leadership,” […]

A novel way to keep the PM from letting power take him out of control-Think R.Gamliel & R. Yehoshua.

A draconian solution: Rabbis & community leaders must condemn&decry bachelorhood past a certain age.

Stalin’s plan for the Soviet’s “final solution of the Jewish question” was totally assimilating them

Havdalah.com will be streaming an inspiring/live/MUSICAL/global Havdalah(NOT to fulfill obligation)

The interdisciplinary center has created an educational system that combines academic tuition with a strong commitment to social issues.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/indepth/opinions/chukkat-how-far-can-our-understanding-of-torah-reach/2013/06/12/

Scan this QR code to visit this page online: