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A Process for the Perplexed?

By Beverly Cohen

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.” (

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, 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

Posted on 21 June 2018

This blog aims to provide articles of interest on the weekly parashah and issues in Masorti Judaism, representing the full range of diverse views that exist among Masorti members. For guidance on any of the issues raised, please consult your rabbi.

What are your thoughts?

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Mona Jones •   2 years ago

I read this explanation in a publication and it seems rational and logical to me.
“The Red Heifer And
“Love your neighbor”
Regarding the Cohen (the priest)
who administers the purification
process with the ashes
of the Red Heifer, the Torah writes:
“And the priest is impure until the
evening.” (Numbers 19:7) Rabbi Yitzchok
of Vorki taught that the essence
of the Parah Aduma, Red Cow (that
is, the whole procedure of purifying
those who were spiritually impure) is
the concept of “Love your neighbor.”
His grandson, Rabbi Mendel of Vorki
explained that this is because the Cohen
(who was involved in the purification
process) becomes impure himself
through the process which purifies the
person who came to him. When someone
forfeits in order to help someone
else, that is the ultimate in love for
one’s fellow human being.
What is interesting about this mitzvah
is that when performing the
sprinkling process, the person who
was unclean becomes clean, while the
Kohen, who performed the purification
process, becomes impure!
According to our sages, this is one
reason why the mitzvah of Para Adumah
is called Chukah—a mitzvah with
no rational explanation to it.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains
that although we can’t comprehend
the logic of this mitzvah, as the Torah
didn’t give us the reason for it, we can
learn a very important lesson from it.
It teaches us, says the Rebbe, that we
have to be ready to make personal sacrifices
to help another believer come
closer to G-d and that we cannot pass
the responsibility unto others.
We learn this from the fact that the
Torah commands the Kohen (priest)
to personally help this individual even
at the cost of temporarily becoming
impure himself and being unable to
enter the Holy Temple.
From this we learn that when we see
a person who is spiritually lacking and
we have the ability to help, we should
not pass the job to someone else, it is
up to us, even at the cost of self sacrifice,
to help them in their spiritual
Rabbi Kalman Packouz says that a
person who is not willing to make any
sacrifices for other people will always
find reasons why it is too difficult for
him to do acts of kindness for others.
To help others takes time, energy and
money. However, when someone truly
loves another person, he feels pleasure
in all the sacrifices that he makes for
him. The greater your love for someone,
the more sacrifices you are willing
to make. Therefore, the test of your
level of love for your fellow human being
is the amount of sacrifices you are
willing to make. A person who is not
willing to make any sacrifices shows
that he lacks love for others.”