Thursday, June 17, 2010

Legalism and Love / Parshat Chukkat

An ancient anti-Semitic canard goes like this: Judaism is a dry, unfeeling legalistic religion lacking spirituality. Indeed, legalism is a powerful biblical metaphor for our relationship with God: we have an eternal, deeply committed, all-encompassing relationship with God. It is like a marriage in that it entails love and loyalty. It is like a parent-child relationship in that it is eternal and unconditional. It is like a teacher-student in that it involves guidance, direction, and sometimes rebuke. There is nothing dry and unfeeling in these relationships! Quite to the contrary.

This week we read Parshat Chukkat. The word “chukkat” comes from “chok” which might be translated rule, law, directive, or statute. In fact, Hebrew has a number of words that fall into this general category: mitzvah, mishpat, eidah, and chok. What distinguishes them?

There are, generally speaking, two kinds of mitzvot (commandments): mishpatim (laws, or judgments) are commandments that human reason can discern and arrive at on its own. Mishpatim include the commandments to give charity, and the prohibitions again murder and theft. Even if God had not commanded these laws, we would have come to them on our own. Chukkim, however, are mitzvot that we accept as divine decrees but cannot fully comprehend with our rational minds. Among these are the laws of kashrut (dietary laws) and the laws of family purity. Preeminent on this list, the law of the Parah Adumah, the Red Heifer, with which our parashah opens. The law of the Red Heifer defies all logic. It’s not that it’s irrational, it’s more that it is supra-rational – it is entirely beyond human logic. The mishpatim reflect the magic of love and devotion: we do them out of a sense of love and devotion to God and God’s people Israel.

Eidot, which we might translate “testimonial,” are commandments that symbolize or commemorate an event or something else of great meaning. Shabbat menukhah/ sabbath rest is an example, because it commemorates Creation and permits us to engage in imitatio dei/imitation of God. Another example would be the mitzvah of eating matzah on Pesach, whereby we relive the experience of our ancestors. A third example is tefillin, which is the literal fulfillment of poetic passage in Torah. While we might not have assumed or deduced any of these mitzvot from the Torah, once they are explained, we can appreciate their purpose.

The combination of commitments we understand and those we don’t, but follow out of love and devotion, amount to a tradition of staggering spirituality: every face we greet is a reflection of God, every facet of life can reflect God’s holiness, every act can be an extension of God’s hand in the universe. There is no pocket of life called “religious” that we pull out once a week, attend to quickly, and return to a closet. All of life – in its astounding beauty, violence and ugliness, and quotidian messiness, can be responded to with a religious soul. The injustices that plague our neighbors become our concern because they are God’s concern. The pain and fear that haunts others generates a mandate to providing comforting care because we are the hands of God, and mitzvot meaning doing, responding, acting, being present. How could anyone for a moment think this is dry legalism, lacking spirituality? Only those for whom spirituality is an all-about-me activity.

The metaphor of law bespeaks Judaism’s premium on engagement in relationship in all its finest expressions: love, caring, justice, and compassion.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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