The chok and the placebo

A lovely old lady is somewhat of a hypochondriac. Well, maybe not a hypochondriac – she’s really just lonely. Pain, or perceived pain, seems to manifest itself periodically, which causes her to visit her doctor. He knows the deal, and he sympathizes with her – he’s an old school, kindly, country doctor who actually spends time with his patients. Her condition, if you could call it that, clearly requires no medication. In fact, the type of prescriptive medication she would want – she knows the range of what’s available – would interact badly with the other medications she takes and needs. So whenever she calls on the doctor for a prescription to deal with her “crenck” du jour, without betraying what he’s doing, he smilingly gives her a placebo which he stores in his cabinet for such patients. It makes her (and the others too) actually feel better – every time.  It has the psychological effect intended, rather than any actual physiological benefit. A true healer, body and mind!

For the hardliners of Judaism, to even consider the words chok (or irrational Law) and placebo together in a sentence (or concept) might suggest that the author has come loose from his moorings. Indeed, the mere combination of chukim with placebos suggests that a “fake medicine,” that is in actuality nothing more than a ploy prescribed for a patient, is somehow comparable to a Law authored by God Himself.  Actually, the somewhat euphemistic “super-rational” (or otherwise called “suprarational”) Law has now become the more admissible substitute for law that has no seeming rational explanation, lest the Torah itself and God as its “Legislator” seem irrational.

Indeed, how can the irrational (or super-rational) Laws of Shatnez, the Red Heifer, and even Kashruth – which, too, is clearly a chok, whether or not we see it as such given how ingrained it is in our culture –  stand juxtaposed to Murder, Adultery, Larceny, Honoring Parents and the Prohibition Against False Oaths, when the latter commandments are so easily comprehensible and necessary for a civilized society, whether that society is religious or atheist-leaning? Are the super-rational Laws actually instrumentalities of God’s design intended to make us somehow “feel better” about our unique relationship with God – given that rational (and commonly understandable) laws (mishpatim) are as essential to “the nations” as they are to us?

Or are they perhaps palliatives – non-curatives – designed merely to help us through life less painfully, enabling us to tell ourselves that we do these things because God wants us to even if – or maybe precisely because – we can’t understand them?  That said, parenthetically especially given how far modern culture has moved in recent years, would the observant hardliner see the Torah’s prohibition against homosexuality as a chok or a mishpat?  A super-rational law, or an understandable law?

Imagine this: We readily perform (or abstain from ) things that we don’t comprehend. What’s more, we don’t even try to comprehend them. Indeed many of us view their adherence as a total act of obeisance which will help our prayers to find a special resonance with God. And, for that precise reason, we (or at least some of us), actually feel better for having observed them!  In some way, it seems, in observing the irrational (or super-rational) commandment we actually ingest a placebo, fully aware that it’s a placebo but nonetheless feeling better inside for having done so – fundamentally because it has been prescribed to us.

Now, it might be one thing if God had told us directly, “You must do or abstain from a certain act simply because I tell you to.”  He didn’t, however. Rather, He simply told us what to do or to abstain from.  A number of His dictates, of course, seem exquisitely strange, as most any of us acknowledge. To address their apparent irrationality, the rabbis have taken it upon themselves, without the Torah’s help, to deal with it. How?  One argument says that God Himself does know the reasons, but arbitrarily chose not to tell us (Rambam, Morah Hanevuchim, Book III, Chap. XXXI; but see Radak, Introduction, Commentary on the Prophets). A second theory posits that there are no reasons – He just required them in demand for that obeisance.  Id. Some proponents of this theory actually argue that each of the 613 mitzvot is a chok: As if to say, “Do it because I command it, period!” (See, The Logic of the Mitzvot).  A third claim is that those Laws are intended to cause the “other nations” – who also obviously won’t understand them – to conclude that since the House of Israel presumably does understand them, we are therefore wiser (See Chukim –Absence of Reason or Not, Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim). This, clearly, a somewhat off the charts analysis.

If this were not enough, another rationale for why God didn’t disclose His reasons for the chukim is that had He done so “people who are not understanding individuals would reject them” (Id).  This thesis argues that it is preferable for Jewry to be unable to understand why adherence to particular Laws is required, rather than risk Jewry’s non-compliance because the people simply don’t understand the particular super-rational Law. Pretty odd.

Unquestionably, none of us truly know the reason. And, given the debate, the rabbis seem  to simply be guessing, hoping for the best. If, however, we see these Laws as placebos –  something we are instructed to “take” because God wants us to feel better about our commitment to religion and to God – they might have greater meaning, even if they lack rationality. In this conception, God dispenses something valuable, even if it not discernably so to mankind. We swallow what He dispenses simply because it makes us feel better about our lives (whereas those who don’t ingest it will not).

Perhaps we should add the name “physician” or “healer” to the many other designations we have for God. Rofeh HaElyon? Indeed, in a troubled and unsettled world, perhaps God chose to dispense to us, among His other gifts, something that might be akin to placebos.  These “placebos”, however, unlike those prescribed by human physicians, are designed to comfort and make us “feel better” about our relationship with God – and about ourselves.

Yes, Rofeh HaElyon!



About the Author
Joel Cohen is a white-collar criminal defense lawyer at Stroock in New York and previously a prosecutor. He speaks and writes on law, ethics and policy (NY Law Journal, The Hill and Law & Crime). He teaches a course on "How Judges Decide" at Fordham Law School. He has published “Truth Be Veiled,” “Blindfolds Off: Judges on How They Decide” and works of Biblical fiction including “Moses: A Memoir.” The opinions expressed in this article are Mr. Cohen's and not necessarily those of the Stroock firm or its lawyers. Dale J. Degenshein, a Stroock colleague, assists in preparing the articles on this blog.
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