The power and proper use of intellect is an oft misunderstood concept in the Western world, making this week’s parsha all the more important to understand. Parshat Chukat introduces us to the paradigmatic chok, the mitzvah of parah adumah (the red heifer). A chok is commonly understood in contrast to a mishpat. A mishpat represents a rational, intuitive Torah law, such as the prohibitions against murder and stealing and the command to give charity. Such laws appeal to the human intellect and align with the innate moral compass present within all human beings, irrespective of religion, race, or ethnicity. A chok, on the other hand, refers to a Torah law that seemingly defies human logic and rational explanation, such as the parah adumah, kashrus (Jewish dietary laws), and shatnez (the prohibition of mixing wool and linen).
If there is no logical explanation for these mitzvos, what is their purpose? Why would Hashem command us to do something with no justifiable reason? One possibility is that this type of command 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 commitment and discipline. An effective way to discipline oneself is by obeying laws, regardless of whether they are understood. Comprehension and understanding are valuable, but chukim are necessary to create a firm structure of pure obedience to Hashem’s will.
However, it is possible that while chukim do not appear to 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 these reasons transcend human logic, residing in a realm far beyond our intellectual capabilities. Within this line of thinking, it is possible that while our human intellects cannot grasp the entirety of a chok’s meaning and depth, we can access shards of its meaning. A clear expression of this is the fact that many commentaries attempted to provide explanations for chukim, despite their supposed incomprehensibility. This suggests at least a partially comprehensible aspect to chukim, despite their elusive and transcendent nature.
The Nature of Intellect
The topic of chukim and our ability to intellectually grasp them raises a more general question: What exactly is the nature and purpose of our intellect? Within Western culture, the intellect is lauded as the be-all and end-all of truth itself. Scientists, philosophers, and atheists often claim that Judaism is dogmatic and irrational, rejecting logic and reason. Is this so? What is the role of intellect within Judaism, and conversely, what is its limit? Do we reject reason, embrace it, or perhaps take a 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 upon it. Let us explore what this means.
The Purpose and Usefulness of Logic
Philosophy and logic are useful, often necessary, tools for approaching 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 away 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. This proof is a logical one, using the logical alternative of a creator not existing to prove the existence of one.
Intellect Provides Limited Knowledge
However, there are also flaws with human logic, and careful consideration the previously mentioned subject shows this 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 fundamental 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 deductive reasoning, that there is a creator, but logic alone does not allow us to experience Hashem, or deeply connect with Him. But the limits of logic expand far beyond this example.
Immanuel Kant, an 18th century philosopher, revolutionized the study of philosophy by questioning the very validity of human intellect itself. (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. Therefore, our entire conception of the physical world is based solely on our personal, subjective experience. We don’t experience reality itself, we experience reality only as it is subjectively experienced through the filter of our own 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 – allows 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 consistent with the objective reality of the world. Perhaps there is an infinite array of possible experiences that our five senses are simply unable to transmit to us. For example, our eyes happen to experience the world through a specific optic lens. But say our eyes were created to see at the quantum level, our perception of reality would be fundamentally different.
Taking this idea a step further, we can question logical reasoning and conclusions as well. If the rules of physics and logic are based on personal, limited perceptions of a physical reality, human logic is extremely limited. As such, the Western world may be using the wrong tools to understand the ultimate truths.
This is the view that the Ramban takes, articulating this point in his commentary to Sefer Vayikra (Vayikra 16:8). The Ramban criticizes the assumption that logic is the ultimate tool for determining truth, pointing to 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, though, and logic is in fact limited, what lies beyond reason and logic? What did the Vilna Gaon mean when he said: “where philosophy ends, Jewish wisdom begins.”? The answer is as follows: there is a deeper form of wisdom, one that we can refer to as post-rational, experiential wisdom. The intellectual, philosophical mind cannot grasp this wisdom, as it cannot be put into finite words. These truths cannot be proven, only known deep within the core of one’s soul. This spiritual wisdom should not be confused with that which is irrational, nor should it be mistaken for emotional experience. These truths do not contradict reason, they simply cannot be explained by it.
Yetzias Mitzrayim vs. Matan Torah
In Daas Tevunos, the Ramchal explains that this concept is the very difference between the miracles of yetzias Mitzrayim and the miracle of Matan Torah. The miracles of yetzias mitzrayim merely revealed Hashem’s existence. Through the ten makkos, kriyas 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 nevuah. 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 boundaries and limitations of reason and intellect.
The Purpose of Chukim
This is the purpose of a chok, a mitzvah which our intellect cannot fully grasp. It is to teach us this important principle: 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 commentaries 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 commentaries counterintuitively 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 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, tefilla, 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.