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Rabbi Avi Weiss

There are differing opinions concerning the meaning of “chok” (commonly translated as statute), the type of law discussed at the beginning of this week’s portion (Numbers 19).

Some maintain that chok is a law that, although not understood today, will be understood one day in the future. The most mainstream approach to the meaning of chok is that it is a law that does not and will not ever have a reason besides the fact that it is a decree from God. For this reason alone, it must be kept. In the words of the Talmud, “It is an enactment from Me, and you are not permitted to criticize it” (Yoma 67b).

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The idea that a law must be observed even if it has no rationale runs contrary to the modern, critical approach to law – that everything must have a reasonable explanation. However, this mainstream approach to chok is at the very core of the Jewish legal process.

That process is based on a belief in Torah mi-Sinai, the law given by God at Sinai to which the Jewish people committed itself. Torah mi-Sinai is a form of heteronomous law, a structure of law that operates independent of any individual or group.

Torah mi-Sinai reflects a system of ethics that comes from God. Halacha (from the root halach, “to go”) is not random; it guides us and is the mechanism through which individuals and society can reach an ideal ethical plateau. In the words of King Solomon: “Its ways are ways of pleasantness, and all its paths are peace” (Proverbs 3:17).

This system of divine ethics differs from ethical humanism. Ethical humanism is based solely on what human beings consider to be proper conduct. Yet this can be a dangerous approach to deciding law. Human thinking can be relative. What is unethical to one person is ethical to another. Freud is purported to have said, “When it comes to self deception, human beings are geniuses.”

If, however, the law at its foundation comes from God, it becomes inviolate. No human being can declare it null and void. Therefore the law ought to be kept even when its ethical underpinnings are not understood.

And this in no small measure is why the idea of chok is so central. It reminds us of the limits of the human mind. As Rabbi Elie Munk points out: “An essential component of wisdom is the knowledge that man’s failure to understand truth does not make it untrue.”

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Rabbi Avi Weiss is founding president of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and senior rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale. His memoir of the Soviet Jewry movement, “Open Up the Iron Door,” was recently published by Toby Press.
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