Chok, Mishpat, and Current Events

Today in class we were continuing a discussion the famous distinction between Chukim and Mishpatim.   The exact definition of that distinction is debated by the Rishonim.  Popularly, however, people think of the broad claim of Rashi that Mishpatim are mitzvot that can be understood and Chukim are those that cannot A piece came to mind by Mori VeRabi Rabbi Aryeh Klapper that speaks to many of the issues hitting the news in the last few weeks, as it was originally written to deal with the Rabba issue and addresses homosexuality as well.  The piece is divided into two: Part 1 and Part 2.  I encourage everyone to read them carefully.

In a nutshell, he describes two processes.  Drawing on the distinction between chok and mishpat as understood above, he notes that when people do not understand a law or can’t imagine it standing for a general principle in Halacha (rather than an exception), they can “chokify it” – accept the binding authority of the mitzvah but assume that the reason is inscrutable and therefore the philosophy behind it should not be extended.  On the other hand, people can choose to “mishpatify” – embrace not only the law, but its philosophy, claiming it stands in for the values of the Halachic system more broadly.  He argues that chokification can be a legitimate way for people to deal with mitzvot they have difficulty with emotionally, intellectually, or even ethically.  (I would add that Rambam also believes in the process of chokification.  Part of his central claim about chukim is that they are laws that based on contingent historical causes, and therefore their reasons don’t work when the historical factors don’t apply, which is what makes them chukim.)

What I would add is that there is (unfortunately) a third option, which is illegitimate, and that is to decide that not only can you not accept a mitzvah as representative of the Halachic system, but you cannot accept its truth, goodness, or validity.  This is true even if one is not going to act on his perception that a mitzvah is immoral or unfair.  The very act of judging God flies in the face of the notion of Torah – either you accept the authority of God or you don’t.  As the Gemara in Eruvin 64a says, if you so much as say that you like a part of Torah and don’t like another – it is as if you consorted with prostitutes.  The prohibition of Bal Tigra, not subtracting a mitzvah from the Torah is based on this notion- the Torah is perfect and to add or subtract to the corpus of Torah.  For Rambam especially, it is a theologically driven command (as opposed to other Rishonim who think it is fundamentally a problem of distorting the form of specific mitzvoth – see summary in the first section of the Pesicha Kolleles of the Pri Megadim).

Note his language:

רמב”ם הלכות יסודי התורה פרק ט הלכה א

דבר ברור ומפורש בתורה שהיא מצוה עומדת לעולם ולעולמי עולמים אין לה לא שינוי ולא גרעון ולא תוספת שנאמר את כל הדבר אשר אנכי מצוה אתכם אותו תשמרון לעשות לא תוסף עליו ולא תגרע ממנו, ונאמר והנגלות לנו ולבנינו עד עולם לעשות את כל דברי התורה הזאת, הא למדת שכל דברי תורה מצווין אנו לעשותן עד עולם, וכן הוא אומר חוקת עולם לדורותיכם, ונאמר לא בשמים היא, הא למדת שאין נביא רשאי לחדש דבר מעתה, לפיכך אם יעמוד איש בין מן האומות בין מישראל ויעשה אות ומופת ויאמר שה’ שלחו להוסיף מצוה או לגרוע מצוה או לפרש במצוה מן המצות פירוש שלא שמענו ממשה, או שאמר שאותן המצות שנצטוו בהן ישראל אינן לעולם ולדורי דורות אלא מצות לפי זמן היו, הרי זה נביא שקר שהרי בא להכחיש נבואתו של משה, ומיתתו בחנק על שהזיד לדבר בשם ה’ אשר לא צוהו, שהוא ברוך שמו צוה למשה שהמצוה הזאת לנו ולבנינו עד עולם ולא איש אל ויכזב.

To act as if a mitzvah is not in the Torah is an assault on the Torah and God.

Furthermore, we should note that while chokification may be legitimate, it is not ideal.  This notion of chok was anathema to the majority of Rishonim, who thought that chok referred to things that could not be fully understood by human beings, or were historically contingent and therefore less relevant than they once were, but not things which have no reason.  Thus, one should understand that the move towards chok is far from simple theologically, not to mention that the more laws one relegates to chok, the less the philosophy of the Torah can permeate his or her worldview.  As the Torah is meant to provide a philosophy of life and not just a series of atomic laws, this would be a loss to one’s religious life.


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