Torah: Making sense of red heifer mitzvah for modern Jews


Numbers 19:1–22:1

Judges 11:1–33

This week’s parashah opens with one of the Torah’s most perplexing commandments: the ritual of the red heifer. A cow with a perfect red coat that has never been used for work is slaughtered and burned outside the sanctuary along with hyssop and cedar, tied together with red string. The ashes are then used to purify individuals who have come into contact with a corpse.

Commentators struggle mightily to make sense of this ritual. In Pesikta de Rav Kahana (4:7), Rabbi Yochanan goes so far as to say there is no explanation for this mitzvah. We are not meant to understand every one of God’s commandments. His disciple, Rabbi Isaac, adds that even the wise King Solomon could not make sense of this commandment.

In his comment to Leviticus 18:4, the 11th-century French commentator Rashi argues that there are two kinds of mitzvahs — mishpatim (judgments) and chukim (laws). A mishpat is a mitzvah “in conformity with the human feeling of justice such as one feels ought to be ordained if they had not been already ordained by the Torah.” On the other hand, a chok (from which our parashah gets its name) is a “matter proscribed by God, promulgated without any reason being stated.” Rashi includes as examples the laws of kashrut, shatnetz (wearing clothing of mixed fabrics) and the red heifer.

The framers of the Reform movement largely took their cue from Rashi, but they elected to dismiss all chukim. The original platform for Reform Judaism, drafted in Pittsburgh in 1885, reads, “We recognize in the Mosaic legislation a system of training the Jewish people for its mission during its national life in Palestine, and today we accept as binding only its moral laws, and maintain only such ceremonies as elevate and sanctify our lives, but reject all such as are not adapted to the views and habits of modern civilization.”

In other words, chukim such as the red heifer may have been helpful during the 40 years of desert wandering but are no longer relevant. Future Reform Jews and rabbis (such as myself) have struggled with this idea, and subsequent platforms of the Reform movement have significantly shifted on this issue. If we are obligated to follow only rational laws, which (as Rashi points out) we would follow a priori of the Torah, then what use is the Torah? What is left to sustain Judaism from dissolving into ethical atheism or Unitarianism?

Rabbi Abraham Geiger, an early Reform leader, argued that a purely rational Judaism could be maintained as the original and therefore most pure form of ethical monotheism. Rabbi Leo Baeck countered that Judaism is founded equally upon mystery and commandment. If one gives up the sense of commandment, one is left with only mystery and no sense of obligation. Religion should compel one to act beyond his or her original intentions.

My friend Rabbi Gedaliah Potash of Chabad of Noe Valley explains, “When I see a stranger on the street, I act ethically toward him simply because I am an ethical person, not because we have a unique relationship. But when my wife turns to me at 2 in the morning and asks for a cup of tea, I do it without asking, even if the request lacks any rationality. This is because I have a covenantal relationship with my wife which transcends reason.”

To push the analogy, if my Judaism requires nothing of me beyond my original sense of ethics, then what is the point? Relationship is measured by our nonrational or even irrational actions toward one another. Without the observance of any ritualistic or nonrational mitzvahs, a Jew does not look or act any differently from the rest of the world.

Thus the mitzvah of the red heifer crystallizes the conundrum of the modern Reform Jew. How do we choose which mitzvot to follow without being robbed of our sense of covenant? After all, they are called the 613 mitzvot, not the 613 suggestions. At the same time, we seek to practice our Judaism through the prism of modernity and pluralism.

The challenge of modern Reform Jewry is to protect and sustain our unique relationship with God while at the same time allowing for flexibility and the incorporation of modern views. It is a narrow path to forge, but for Reform Jews of today, it is both inspirational and necessary.

Rabbi Jonathan Jaffe is a rabbi at Reform Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco. He can be reached at [email protected]