The power and purpose of intellect is an oft misunderstood concept in the Western world, making Parshas Chukas all the more important to study. Parshas Chukas introduces us to the paradigmatic chok, the mitzvah of Parah Adumah (the Red Heifer). A chok is commonly understood in contrast to a mishpat.
A mishpat is a rational, intuitive Torah law, such as the prohibition against murder and stealing and the command to give charity. Such laws appeal to the human intellect and appeal to the innate moral compass present within all human beings, irrespective of religion, race, or ethnicity.
A chok, on the other hand, refers to a Torah law that seemingly defies human logic and rational explanation, such as Parah Adumah, Kashrus (Jewish dietary laws), and Shaatnez (the prohibition against mixing wool and linen).
If there is no logical explanation for these mitzvos, what is their purpose? Why would Hashem command us to do something for seemingly no justifiable reason?
One possibility is that this type of command engenders obedience and submission to Hashem’s will. A life of truth is a life aligned with a higher will, Hashem’s will (Avos 2:4). Such a life requires commitment and discipline. An effective way to discipline oneself is by obeying laws, regardless of whether one understands them. Comprehension and understanding are valuable, but chukim are necessary to create a firm structure of pure obedience to Hashem’s will.
However, it is possible that while chukim do not appear to have any rational or logical explanation, this is true only from the viewpoint of human logic and reason. In other words, there is, in fact, a reason for chukim, but these reasons transcend human logic, residing in a realm far beyond our intellectual capabilities. Within this line of thinking, it is possible that while our human intellects cannot grasp the entirety of a chok’s meaning and depth, we can access shards of its meaning. A clear expression of this is the fact that many commentators have attempted to provide explanations for chukim, despite their supposed incomprehensibility. This suggests at least a partially comprehensible aspect to chukim, despite their elusive and transcendent nature.
The Nature of Intellect
The topic of chukim – and our ability to intellectually grasp them – raises a more general question: What exactly is the nature and purpose of our intellect? Within Western culture, the intellect is lauded as the be-all and end-all of truth itself. Scientists, philosophers, and atheists often claim that Judaism is dogmatic and irrational, rejecting logic and reason. Is this so? What is the role of intellect within Judaism, and conversely, what is its limit? Do we reject reason, embrace it, or perhaps take a middle ground? The Vilna Gaon famously said, “Where logic and human intellect end, Jewish wisdom begins.” It seems, therefore, that Judaism does not reject reason and logic, but builds upon it. Let us explore what this means.
The Purpose and Utility of Logic
Philosophy and logic are useful, often necessary, tools for approaching spiritual truths. For example, one of the most famous methods of proving Hashem’s existence is the “proof by design” approach. The universe is so infinitely complex and vastly beautiful, with endless layers of depth and organization. Examine just a single human cell, and you will be astounded by its sophistication. Analyze the principles of chemistry, and you will be blown away by how perfectly everything fits. The only logical reaction to a universe so organized and sophisticated is to conclude that there must be a Designer who created it. Such a work of art does not simply happen by accident. This proof is a logical one, using the logical alternative of a creator not existing to prove the existence of one.
Intellect Provides Limited Knowledge
However, there are also flaws with human logic, and careful consideration of the previously mentioned proof shows this clearly. One may logically conclude that Hashem’s exists: The world is so infinitely complex that there must be a Creator behind it. However, there is a fundamental limit to logic. Logic may enable us to know that Hashem exists, but it does not help us to know anything about Him. We may know, through reasoning, that there is a creator, but logic alone does not allow us to have a relationship with Hashem, experience Him, or deeply connect with Him. But the limits of logic expand far beyond this example.
Immanuel Kant, the famous 18th century German philosopher, revolutionized the study of philosophy by questioning the very validity of human intellect itself. (It is essential to point out that while in the Western world, Kant is credited with this novel idea, Jewish thinkers have already been teaching this concept for thousands of years.) He proposed the following idea: The entirety of physical human experience is transmitted through our five senses. Therefore, our entire conception of the physical world is based solely on our personal, subjective experience. We don’t experience reality itself; we experience reality only as it is subjectively filtered through our own physical senses. We imagine that sounds are the way we hear them, sights are the way we see them, and tastes are the way we, personally, perceive them. However, the idea that our “translation system” – our five senses – allows us to sense things as they truly are is merely an assumption. There is no way of knowing if the world as I experience it is consistent with the objective reality of the world. Perhaps there is an infinite array of possible experiences that our five senses are simply unable to transmit to us. For example, our eyes happen to experience the world through a specific optic lens. But if our eyes were created to see at the quantum level, our perception of reality would be fundamentally different.
Similarly, there is no way of knowing if the world as I experience it is identical to the world as you experience it. We could each be living in our own subjective reality, experiencing something completely different. Say that what you experience as blue, everyone else calls green, and what you experience as green, everyone else calls blue. When you were young, you were taught to call what you experience as blue, “green,” and what you experience as green, “blue.” In essence, there is no way of knowing what anyone else is experiencing; we each experience one’s own subjective reality.
Taking this idea a step further, we can question logical reasoning and conclusions, as well. If the rules of physics and logic are based on personal, limited perceptions of a physical reality, human logic is extremely limited. As such, the Western world may be using the wrong tools to understand the ultimate truth.
This is the view that the Ramban takes, articulating this point in his commentary to Sefer VaYikra (Ramban al HaTorah – VaYikra 16:8). The Ramban criticizes the assumption that logic is the ultimate tool for determining truth, pointing to the Greek philosophers as a paradigm of those who made this mistake. They denied anything that their intellects could not grasp, anything they could not scientifically quantify. They created a limited subjective truth, confined only to that which they could explain logically. The fault in this lies in the simple fact that rational knowledge is always limited.
If this is true, though, and logic is in fact limited, what lies beyond reason and logic? What did the Vilna Gaon mean when he said: “Where philosophy ends, Jewish wisdom begins”? The answer is as follows: There is a deeper form of wisdom, one that we can refer to as post-rational, experiential wisdom. The intellectual, philosophical mind cannot grasp this wisdom, as it cannot be put into finite words. These truths cannot be proven, only known deep within the core of one’s soul. This spiritual wisdom should not be confused with that which is irrational, nor should it be mistaken for emotional experience. These truths do not contradict reason; they simply cannot be explained by it.
Y’tzias Mitzrayim vs. Matan Torah
In Daas T’vunos, the Ramchal explains that this concept is the precise difference between the miracles of Y’tzias Mitzrayim and the miraculous experience of Matan Torah. The miracles of Y’tzias Mitzrayim revealed Hashem’s existence. Through the ten makos, K’rias Yam Suf, and the miracles in the midbar, Hashem revealed to both klal Yisrael and the world as a whole that He exists and controls every facet of this world. However, there was no deeper, experiential knowledge of who Hashem is, only an external knowledge of how Hashem expresses Himself in the world; this type of knowledge is limited to our five physical senses. Matan Torah was a miracle of a completely different quality: It was experiential; every member of klal Yisrael had a personal experience of n’vuah (prophecy). Each individual had a post-rational, consciousness-expanding, transcendent experience of Hashem Himself. We didn’t witness Hashem outside ourselves; we experienced Him within our own consciousness, within ourselves, beyond the boundaries and limitations of reason and intellect.
The Purpose of Chukim
This is the purpose of a chok, a mitzvah that our intellect cannot fully grasp: A chok teaches us that complete truth lies beyond logic and reason. Logic leads us towards the truth, but ultimately, truth resides in a realm beyond reason. Only when we recognize the limitations of intellect can we experience deeper truth. This is why many commentators view chukim as more than just a means to submission and obedience. Chukim DO have meaning behind them, but the full explanation lies beyond the grasp of human intellect.
This why many commentators give rational explanations for the chukim, something that may initially appear ironic and counterintuitive. Truth is beyond the rational or the post-rational and experiential; it contains both. Judaism does not reject the rational, but views it as a stepping-stone to the transcendent. The rational is not rejected, but rather used as a stage in the process of reaching the ultimate truth. The rational explanations for chukim are the finite, mundane expression of their full, transcendent depth, and understanding the rational is the first step towards accessing the transcendent.
The Power of Experience
A person can talk about Torah, spirituality, Hashem, t’filah, and mitzvos all they want – days, weeks, months, even years – but until Torah life becomes an experiential reality, one that is more than intellectual truth, it will remain limited and incomplete. You cannot understand the depths of spiritual truth without experiencing it. The journey of a Jew is the journey of emunah, of faithfulness, of seeking out higher and more genuine expressions of truth. May we be inspired to enjoy every step of that process, to embark on a genuine journey towards truth, and to endlessly expand our experiential and existential understanding of the ultimate truth.
Shmuel Reichman is an inspirational speaker, writer, and coach who has lectured internationally at shuls, conferences, and Jewish communities on topics of Jewish Thought and Jewish Medical Ethics. He is the founder and CEO of Self-Mastery Academy (ShmuelReichman.com), the transformative online course that is revolutionizing how we engage in self-development. You can find more inspirational lectures, videos, and articles from Shmuel on his website: www.ShmuelReichman.com.