By Rabbi Joel Roth
Is Halakhah Binding No Matter What?
The beginning of this week’s parashah presents the description of the red heifer ritual. In a nutshell, a perfectly unblemished red heifer must be killed, certain rituals performed with it, and its body burned to ashes. Those involved in the preparation of these ashes become ritually impure. The ashes, however, are mixed with water and sprinkled on those who have become impure through contact with the dead in order to render them pure again. The strangeness of the whole procedure did not escape the attention of the sages.
A passage in Midrash Tanhuma has Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai explaining the ritual to a non-Jew in a very “magical” way. His students then say to him: “You may explain it that way to him, but what do you say to us?” He answers: “The dead body does not literally make impure, and the water with the ashes does not literally affect purity. Rather, it is the decree of the King of Kings. The Holy One, blessed be He, said: Hukkah hakkakti (I have made a decree), I have issued an edict, and you may not violate My edict.”
In the halakhic system a hok is understood to refer to a law of the Torah the logical underpinnings of which and the reasoning behind which are cryptic, unclear, or unknown. The name of our parashah means “the hok of,” and the midrash above clearly supports the claim that the red heifer ritual is a hok – a law that is cryptic and unclear.
The fact that some of the commands/laws/mitzvot of the Torah are not easy to understand has never stopped rabbinic scholars and leaders from attempting to understand them. Indeed, there is a whole genre of rabbinic literature called Ta’amei haMitzvot (the reasons of the mitzvot) which is devoted to seeking to understand what motivated the Commander to command the specific mitzvot. BUT, as is the case with all legal systems, especially those in which the ultimate basis of authority is perceived to be God, the “commandedness” of the commands is NOT determined by the ability of the commanded to understand them or to agree with them. The ultimate basis of their authority is that they are mandated by the legal system to which the commanded are bound. As an American citizen, I am bound by the provision of the U.S. Constitution that requires that the President be at least 35 years old, whether I understand it or agree with it or not.
The Jewish legal system, halakhah, is no different. It is a legal system which the classical/rabbinic Jewish tradition has defined and accepted as binding upon Jews. That premise is no less true of the Conservative Movement than of Orthodoxy. The Conservative Movement, regrettably, has not done a very good job at educating its constituents to understanding this premise or to accepting it. The premise, however, has been an essential part of Conservative Judaism since its founding.
May this week’s parashah strengthen our commitment to the authority of halakhah, even those elements of it which we may not yet understand, or with which we may think we do not agree.
Rabbi Joel Roth is Rosh Yeshiva of the Conservative Yeshiva, Jerusalem.