I confess I have found it very hard to come to grips with the meaning behind the ritual of the Red Heifer in Parashat Chukat – or even to discover whether there is any meaning that I can come to know. The whole thing is deeply paradoxical. The Torah prescribes a process for purification: a “pure” red cow must be found and killed. Having witnessed/supervised the process, Elazar is rendered impure. Thus, the impure carcass, entrails and dung of the red cow, when burnt to ash and mixed in water with sweet-smelling cedar and hyssop, will purify the impure, but the person touching the purifying ash mixture is rendered impure. Very confusing!
I have searched out commentaries to clarify the enigmas and have discovered some intriguing insights. For example, Rabbi Steven Kushner finds modern parallels to the law of the Red Heifer, which demands defiled ingredients to make a purifying solution. He points out that modern vaccinations protect by injecting disease into our bodies – the poison becoming the cure. But although it is interesting to note the analogy, it does not explain why God made the decree.
Commentators seem to fall into two camps:
Rabbi Yochanan tells his students, “The corpse does not defile, nor does the water cleanse. The truth is that the rite of the Red Heifer is a decree of the King who is King of Kings [and] you are not allowed to transgress my decree.” (Numbers Rabbah 19:8). Yochanan in effect argues that there is no comprehensible message other than that God has established a “permanent law” which must be obeyed. According to Mendy Kaminker (writing on the Chabad website) Maimonides supports this view that the law of impurity is a gezeirat ha-katuv, a law commanded by the Torah (as interpreted by the Sages) for which there is no given logical explanation.
The other camp also calls upon Maimonides, but to support the opposing argument. Dr Barry Holtz (professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary) interprets Maimonides to mean that there is reason beneath the surface of a chukah (an apparently unexplainable commandment). Rabbi Jonathan Sacks says that the explanation for this decree can be found in the narrative that follows it: “Law informs the narrative and narrative informs the law.” (rabbisacks.org)
In the face of these contradictory approaches, I remain perplexed! Shall I simply trust that God makes decrees we must accept, but cannot understand because they come from God? Or should I study, probe and use my imagination to come up with explanations that make sense to me?
It has been argued that Maimonides viewed the understanding and pursuit of logic behind the mitzvot as a value, not an imperative (Devir Kahan, dafalef.com). This makes sense to me. I can accept those mitzvot that I don’t understand because I am a member of a community that accepts them – because those mitzvot come to us from the Torah, which unifies us as the Children of Israel. But at the same time, I can make them meaningful to myself to the best of my ability through the process of thinking, learning and debate.
Beverly Cohen is a trustee of St Albans Masorti Synagogue