"Did you understand that?"

Intellectual commandments and auditory commandments - and the differences between them.

Rabbi Shlomo Sobol ,

Rabbi Shlomo Sobol
Rabbi Shlomo Sobol
INN: Daniel Malichi

"The laws are valid not because they are right, but because they are laws," said French philosopher Michel de Montan. Despite De Montan's Jewish origins, Judaism's attitude to laws seems to be quite different.

Our parsha opens with the commandment of the Para Aduma – the red cow. Para Aduma is THE classic example of a mitzvah that we do not understand. Firstly, because it seems incomprehensible how a few drops of red ash can purify the impure, and secondly because of the paradox that the ash of the cow purifies the impure, while those who perform the task of purifying the impure become impure themselves.

From the beginning of time the Torah commandments are divided into “Mishpatim” and “Chukim” - "intellectual commandments" and "auditory commandments."

“Mishpatim - intellectual commandments” are the commandments which make sense and come naturally to us -the commandments that, were they not listed in the Torah, we would observe anyway just from our intellect and conscience.

By contrast, “Chukim - auditory commandments” are laws that were we not commanded by the Torah we would not think to perform because they are ostensibly incomprehensible to us.

Which commandments are more important, the “Mishpatim” or the “Chukim”?

This question is discussed and contested. We find Rabbis in all generations who tried to give reasoning to the commandments. They believed that each person needs to use their mind to try as much as possible to understand the reasoning of the mitzvot, and to make as many of the mitzvot as possible into “Mishpatim - intellectual mitzvot”. Once a mitzvah becomes an intellectual one there is more motivation to perform the mitzvah as they understand its logic. Thus, they fulfill the mitzvah not “just because” but because they connect with the core of the mitzvah

On the other hand, some believe that the “Chukim - auditory commandments” are more lofty precisely because we fulfill them without understanding them, and by performing them we show that we are devoted to G-d and we realize that Divide laws supersede mere mortal logic.

So who is correct?

"Both these and these are the words of G-d." Every person should have two different mindsets when following G-d’s commandments. One mindset is the intellectual one in which he learns the commandments and tries to understand them and realizes how smart and right they are and how much sense they make to the human mind. But at the same time, we also need the other mindset that realizes that the commandments of G-d are divine and are beyond our ability to comprehend. And even though we do not understand those laws we obey them anyway because we believe that they are the absolute truth which we received on Mount Sinai, they were given to us for our benefit, and they are the ones who will bring ourselves and the whole world to its full tikun.

People’s personalities differ. There are those who find it easier to fulfill a commandment that they understand. However, there are also those who find it easier to fulfill a commandment that seems incomprehensible because they feel that fulfilling that commandment is a divine law, which gives them a feeling of endless connection to G-d. It is even possible for a person at one time in his life to feel a stronger connection to “Mishpatim”, and at other times to “Chukim”.

And the same is true in different generations. There are commandments that in one generation can be “Mishpatim”, and in another generation can be “Chukim”. For example, issues that used to be "intellectual commandments" for every Jew, such as relationships, modesty, prayer, observance of Shabbat, and many others have nowadays become part of some people's "incomprehensible commandments."

The important point is that the question of whether a particular commandment is “Mishpat” or a “Chok” one does not change the validity of the commandment. The main thing is to uphold the will of G-d. Man is not measured by whether his commandment is understandable or not, but he is measured by his subordination to God's will in every situation.

If we were to formulate De Montan's theorem according to the worldview of Judaism, we would say: "The laws are valid because they are right, not because they are understandable."

Rabbi Shlomo Sobol heads Israel's Barkai Rabbinic Organization.for Practical Rabbinics and Community Development