The Parah Aduma (Red Cow)[i] is one of the most renown of the Biblical commandments classified as Chukim.
The term Chukim is sometimes defined as ritual laws or statutes, which appear to defy rational explanation; but nevertheless must be unquestioningly performed. This is to distinguish them from Mishpatim, which are considered rational rules and Edot that are testimonials.
The archetype often cited as representative of the category of Chukim is the ritual of the Red Cow, which, as the name implies, involves an extremely rare breed[ii] of entirely red-haired cow[iii]. A precisely formulated mixture of ashes of the burnt Red Cow and other ingredients[iv], combined with spring water, is sprinkled on a person suffering from ritual impurity through contact with a corpse. This is an essential part of the process of removing this variety of ritual impurities. Yet, paradoxically, as the Talmud[v] notes, when the Red Cow mixture is sprinkled on a pure person, it causes ritual impurity; the very condition it was designed to remedy. How can the same substance cause impurity for some and purity for others? There’s no obvious solution to the conundrum; it’s one the enigmatic features of the Red Cow ritual. Indeed, the Talmud reports, Rabbi Akiva said even the wise King Solomon was frustrated by the contradictory nature of the sprinkling of the Red Cow purification waters and a rational explanation eluded him, as well[vi].
Interestingly, the Talmud[vii] explains the Biblical[viii] requirement to observe the Chukim is a reference to matters, which the evil inclination will challenge and argue make no sense. This includes the prohibitions against eating pork[ix] and wearing garments made of a mixture of wool and linen, as well as, the laws of levirate marriage, purification of a leper and the Yom Kippur ritual of the twin goats[x]. Nevertheless, as the Talmudic discussion concludes, they are decreed by G-d and there is no right to doubt them.
The Midrash[xi] makes a similar point; but it is more detailed in its analysis. It focuses on four particular Chukim, where the word Chukah[xii] is specifically mentioned in the Bible, in connection with the commandment. Three of those are mentioned the Talmudic discussion summarized above and the fourth is the Red Cow ritual. The Midrash explains that the evil inclination seeks to refute the validity of these Biblical rules. It notes the law prohibiting marrying a brother’s wife[xiii], which is introduced in the Biblical text[xiv] by the requirement to observe the Chukim. Yet, this prohibition is directly contradicted by the principle of levirate marriage[xv]. How then can both rationally be correct? Similarly, interwoven wool and linen cannot be worn together[xvi], which is expressly classified as Chukim[xvii]. However, the law of Tzizit contradicts this general principle and they are permitted to be made of a combination of wool and linen[xviii].
The Midrash then focuses on unique aspects of the Yom Kippur twin goat ritual[xix]. It notes that while the goat designated by lot to be set free in the wilderness atones for sins, nevertheless the person accompanying the goat must wash his clothes to remove any impurity[xx]. So too the one who burns the remains of the Red Cow[xxi] to create the ashes used in the Red Cow purification ritual. Indeed, as the Mishna[xxii] reports the clothes of all those involved in the preparation of the Red Cow ashes, from beginning to end, become ritually impure. This is notwithstanding the fact that those same ashes of the Red Cow may be used to purify garments. Both these commandments are referenced in the same Biblical text[xxiii], which concludes with the express statement that this shall be a Chok forever[xxiv].
The Midrash[xxv] concludes by profoundly declaring, a dead body doesn’t make things impure, nor does water make them pure. Rather, G-d engraved a rule that may not transgress; this is the Chok of the Torah. The term Chok is derived from the word Lachkok, meaning to engrave or imprint[xxvi]. This is an important clue into the nature of Chukim that might help explain their function.
The common wisdom is that the so-called rational part of our brain, centered in the frontal cortex, is our best friend. However, as Dr. Antonio Damasio reported in his book, Descartes’ Error, this may not be so clear. The book deals with Dr. Damasio’s work with a patient who suffered a freak accident that impaired the functionality of his amygdala. This is the portion of the brain that is viewed as the seat of instinctual or emotional behavior, as opposed to the frontal cortex, which is believed to be the rational portion of the brain.
Dr. Damasio at first presumed that he had stumbled on a person who now possessed the perfectly rational mind, unencumbered by base instincts and emotions. Upon further study he determined that prior assumptions about how the so-called rational portion of the brain functioned to formulate decision were erroneous.
Amazingly, his study suggests that decisions are actually made by the instinctual portion of the brain and then rationalized by the frontal cortex. He found that the patient without use of the instinctual portion of the brain just could not make a decision.
Indeed, many successful decision-makers do rely on what is typically referred to as a gut feeling; but which may be better defined as instinct. They are also rather adept at rationalizing those gut-feelings. Given Dr. Damasio’s conclusions, we should be questioning whether our thoughts and decisions should necessarily be viewed as wholly rational. They may in fact just be flawed rationalizations of what our underlying instincts demand, which are not always wholesome or noble. Consider how this instinctual bias, insidiously cloaked in reflexive rationalizations, might yield self-serving decisions that may even be perceived to be altruistic, because of the deceptive functioning of the brain. Thus, the brain cannot be counted on to be wholly rational and, therefore, our implicit trust in our own rationality may be misplaced. What then can be done to remedy the problem?
It is suggested that the Torah offers a means of dealing with the matter. It begins with the realization that there is another aspect to the thinking process, which is embodied in our spiritual dimension, the soul. Indeed, Maimonides views the brain as an organ of the body, which is joined with the soul. The brain is then something akin to the central processing unit in a computer. The actual seat of character traits, knowledge, thought and decision-making, is the soul. The soul’s perception and expression in the physical world, though, is limited by the constraints of the body, including the mind. Maimonides[xxvii], therefore, applies a holistic approach to deal with a person’s physical and mental, as well as, spiritual health, to assure the well-being and proper development of the person. Each of these essential components in the make-up of a person must be nourished in order to assure a good and productive life. How then to nourish the spiritual portion of the person and train the brain effectively to function in expressing the will of the soul? In this sense, the brain is a filter that can impair or distort the desires of the soul.
The solution is the Torah and those who misunderstood Chukim. Following the Torah handbook of programming, neural pathways can be created (i.e.: engraved or imprinted) in the brain. This is accomplished through the process of acting out Torah rituals and other observances of the commandments, which is a means of imprinting the brain. Because of the less than rational nature of Chukim, their performance is particularly well suited to bypassing the filter of the so-called rational mind. In essence, they reach right into the instinctual and emotional part of the brain and create virtuous responses that become second nature and are more consistent with the needs of the soul. Establishing and reinforcing good patterns of behavior is an essential and fundamental part of this imprinting process. The effect of this kind of ritualized behavior and conditioning is to train and sublimate those instincts and emotions to higher purposes, nourishing our spiritual side, embodied in the soul. This, instead of reinforcing our baser instincts and desires traditionally associated with this part of the brain that are rationalized by the frontal cortex, as Dr. Damasio found.
The process is like other forms of physical training and conditioning that become second nature, facilitated by the new neural pathways carved into the brain through this regimen. Thus, like most training regimens, we must have faith in the expertise and skill of the instructor to design and guide us through the process. We proceed with one exercise at a time, even if we don’t fully understand its function in the scheme of the whole training program. Moreover, no one exercise is typically sufficient to achieve the intended result of proper physical conditioning. It takes a complete, fully integrated, program of physical activity and exercises and a nourishing and well-balanced diet to achieve proper conditioning. Furthermore, no program of conditioning would be complete without addressing the mental component. Treating one part of the body without addressing these other concerns is not a program well designed to lead to a healthy and well-balanced individual.
The Torah adds one other category to this holistic approach to life. There is the invisible soul, which as Maimonides explains, must also be treated to achieve the goal of genuine good health. We have been afforded a master training program, embodied in the Torah system G-d beneficently bestowed upon us, to achieve this noble and enlightened goal, which is embodied in the system of Chukim, we are required to perform. In this regard, it is important to appreciate the depth and full extent of what are considered the Chukim.
It is respectfully submitted that there are no real Mishpatim, which could be expected to be enacted as a matter of course, by those professing to be rational. Consider, the vagaries of human nature and the ability of some segment of the society to rationalize and glorify what others perceive as undoubtedly and absolutely abhorrent. Terrorist Hamas, recently murderously firing more than four thousand rockets and missiles targeting innocent civilians in Israel, without the world uniformly denouncing this evil conduct is but one example. Indeed, some even sought to rationalize this miscreant behavior, finding excuses and pretexts to justify the malign actions of Hamas. Is it any wonder that some seek somehow to justify, excuse or rationalize the spate of arson, looting and violence the world is experiencing and callously ignore the epidemic of murders.
It’s all too reminiscent of the Midrash[xxviii] that described G-d offering the Torah to other nations because granting it to the Jewish people. Each nation G-d offered the opportunity to receive the Torah first asked what was in it before they could accept it. When told it contained a prohibition against killing, one nation answered that murder was an essential part of their ethic. Others balked at the restrictions on adultery. Another nation refused it because it prohibited theft and that was an accepted part of their cultural tradition. The sum and substance is that what some may think are ordinary and rational rules are not so obvious to everyone. The answer, ultimately, of the people of Israel was we will do and listen. In essence, it’s the doing part that’s critical and this involves performing the entire program, not just the part we profess to understand. After all, burdened as we are with our rationalizing mind, who are we really to know?
The Beit HaLevi[xxix] in analyzing the nature of Chukim concludes that we don’t actually know the reason for any of the six hundred thirteen commandments; it’s really all just speculation. In that sense, the entire Torah is a Red Cow protocol.
All of the commandments are intertwined into one seamless whole, each dependent on the other, designed to yield refinement. Overdoing or underperforming any of the commandments is to be eschewed, because the entirety of the Torah is a divinely prescribed program to achieve this result. Missing a step or adding one will only serve to disrupt the finely tuned mechanism. Thus, even well-meaning attempts to ascribe reasons justifying the performance of some of the commandments, like the Mishpatim, are fraught with danger. This is because trying to rationalize the performance of some of the commandments might lead to dismissing those, like the Red Cow, which don’t make rational sense. Hence, the emphasis in the Torah on the Red Cow protocol, as the correct approach to the commandments.
It is suggested that the distinction between Chukim and Mishpatim is not in the requirement of unquestioning performance, which effectively is applicable to both categories; but, rather, in the observable or hidden results of doing them. As Maimonides[xxx] notes, every commandment serves a useful purpose. In some cases, the usefulness is evident and in others not so much.
Thus, a good physical exercise routine and diet can have positive and measurable effects on our physical health. We can also see the wonderful and most beneficial effects following the Mishpatim has on how society functions. However, there are no observable conditions we can measure to determine the positive effect the Red Cow protocol is having on our soul. Perhaps, that goes to the essence of the descriptive category of Mishpatim as distinguished from Chukim. We can readily observe the visible difference fulfilling the Mishpatim makes on relations among people. This should inspire us faithfully to follow the complete formula. After all, the overt parts can be seen to work in practice.
Rene Descartes famously said, I think therefore I am. His contemporary, Blaise Pascal, another noted mathematician and acquaintance, countered, the heart has its reasons, which reason does not know. However, we are not just the sum total of what we think or what we feel. We are also what we can become. May we be blessed to follow the Torah program in its entirety and become the best versions of ourselves.
[i] Numbers Chapter 19.
[ii] See Mishna Parah 3:5.
[iii] No more than two hairs can be another color. See Mishna Parah 2:5.
[iv] Numbers 19:6 and see also Mishna Parah 3:10-11.
[v] BT Yoma 14a and Niddah 9a.
[vi] Ecclesiastes 7:23.
[vii] BT Yoma 67b.
[viii] Leviticus 18:4.
[ix] Maimonides adds the prohibition against a mixture of meat and milk. (See Maimonides, Mishne Torah, Trespass 8:8).
[x] See: A Man for One Season and the Anti-Scapegoat, in the Times of Israel blogs, dated May 3, 2019, by the author.
[xi] Numbers Rabbah 19:5.
[xii] Chukah or Chok is the singular and Chukot or Chukim is the plural. Chukoti is the possessive form, in the context of G-d’s Chukot, which are required to be observed.
[xiii] Leviticus 18:16.
[xiv] Leviticus 18:10.
[xv] Deuteronomy 25:5-10.
[xvi] Leviticus 19:19 and Deuteronomy 22:11.
[xvii] Leviticus 19:19.
[xviii] Deuteronomy 22:12.
[xix] Leviticus 16:7-26.
[xx] BT Yoma 67b.
[xxi] Leviticus 16:29 and BT Yoma 68b.
[xxii] Mishna Parah 4:4. See also BT Chulin 29b.
[xxiii] Leviticus, Chapter 16.
[xxiv] See also Deuteronomy 19:2 as to the Red Cow ritual.
[xxv] Midrash 19:8. See also a similar statement in 19:5.
[xxvi] Maharsha commentary on BT Yoma 67b.
[xxvii] Maimonides, Shemona Perakim.
[xxviii] Sifrie, Deuteronomy 343.
[xxix] Beit HaLevi commentary, on Parshat Ki Tisa, by Rabbi Joseph Dov HaLevi Soloveitchik, the first Brisker Rav.
[xxx] Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed 3:26.