web analytics
February 1, 2015 / 12 Shevat, 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.

SocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

Current Top Story
Handout photo of texted message sent by a fearful Christopher Cramer from Saudi Arabia before his death.
Saudis Hold Body of U.S. Elbit Subcontractor After Mysterious Death in Tabuk
Latest Indepth Stories
HETi_logo2

It is offensive that in commemorating the Holocaust mentioning Israel was deemed inappropriate.

Questions-Answers-logo

Many questions, all with thee same, single answer

Eli Weiss

Shepherding in the Shomron isn’t your usual kind of shepherding – despite his business-minded beginnings, Eli has discovered that a strong ideological impetus powers the job.

Resnick-013015-Pilot

I said to myself, “This story has got to be told. We’re losing this generation of World War II and if we don’t listen to them now, we’ve lost it.”

His entire existence was about spreading simcha and glorifying G-d’s name on a daily basis.

An Israeli strike could theoretically damage Iran’s nuclear program; only US can terminate program

At some point we need to stop simply defending and promoting Israel and start living in Israel

“We Jews are the only people who when we drop a book on the floor pick it up and kiss it.”

Though Zaide was the publisher of The Jewish Press, a big newspaper,I always remember him learning

Speaker Silver has been an extraordinary public servant since his election to the Assembly in 1975 and has been an exemplary leader of that body since 1994.

He spent the first leg of his daylong visit to the French capital at Hyper Cacher.

Drawing Congress into the Iran nuclear debate is the last thing the White House wants.

Great leaders like Miriam and like Sarah Schenirer possess the capacity to challenge the status quo that confronts them.

Obama’s foreign policy is viewed by both liberals and conservatives as deeply flawed

More Articles from Guest Author
Social Media pic

Our journey begins by attempting to see things differently, only then can we be open to change.

Police enter HyperCacher

I prayed throughout. My plan is to make Aliya and I pray my family can join me in Israel quickly

It has been a very challenging year that has taken a toll on the Cohen family.

I was touched by his words on the struggle to stand up for Israel.

A Tribute to Rabbi Joseph Grunblatt zt”l

Until you come to see it in person, enjoy Jerusalem’s Botanical Garden virtually via this video!

After four earthquakes shake Israel in one week, experts debate whether the big one is imminent.

The art show represents its theme, the identity of joy in Judaism.

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: