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The Torah Learning Library of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah

The Limitations of the Human Mind

by Rabbi Avi Weiss (Posted on May 21, 2016)
Topics: Torah, Sefer Bamidbar, Chukat

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There are differing opinions concerning the meaning of “chok” (commonly translated as statute), the type of law discussed at the beginning of Chukat (Numbers 19).

Some maintain that “hook” is a law that although not understood today, one day in the future will be understood.

The most mainstream approach to the meaning of “chok,” is that it is a law that does not and will not ever have a reason besides the fact that it is a decree from God. For this reason alone, it must be kept. In the words of the Talmud “It is an enactment from Me, and you are not permitted to criticize it” (Yoma 67b).

The idea that a law must be observed even if it has no rationale, runs contrary to the modern, critical approach to law — that everything must have a reasonable explanation. However, this mainstream approach to chok is at the very core of the Jewish legal process.

That process is based on a belief in Torah mi-Sinai, the law given by God at Sinai to which the Jewish people committed itself. Torah mi-Sinai is a form of heteronomous law, a structure of law that operates independent of any individual or group.

Torah mi-Sinai reflects a system of ethics that comes from God. Halakha (from the root halakh, “to go,”) is not random; it rather guides us, and is the mechanism through which individuals and society can reach an ideal ethical plateau. In the words of King Solomon: “Its ways are ways of pleasantness, and all its paths are peace.” (Proverbs 3:17) One of the challenges of halakha is to understand how this law contributes to the repairing of the world (tikkun olam).

This system of God ethics differs from ethical humanism. Ethical humanism is solely based on what human beings consider to be proper conduct. Yet, this can be a dangerous approach to deciding law. Human thinking can be relative. What is unethical to one person is ethical to another. Freud is purported to have said, “When it comes to self deception, human beings are geniuses.”

If however, the law at its foundation comes from God, it becomes inviolate. No human being can declare it null and void. Heteronomous law assures that one does not succumb to one’s subjective notions or tastes when the law does not suit her or him. Therefore the law ought be kept even when its ethical underpinnings are not understood.

And this in no small measure is why the idea of “hook” is so central. It reminds us of the limits of the human mind. As Rabbi Elie Munk points out: “An essential component of wisdom is the knowledge that man’s failure to understand truth does not make it untrue.”