This week's portion: water from the rock
Kallah: another day in the life

Choice and change (Radical Torah repost)

This week we're reading a double Torah portion. Here's the d'var Torah I wrote in 2007 for the first of this week's portions, originally published at Radical Torah (which appears, once again, to have disappeared.)

In Kedushat Levi, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev offers some striking insights into this week's Torah portion of Chukat, riffing off of the first verse in the parsha, "This is the law of the instructed-ritual that YHVH has commanded, saying: Speak to the Children of Israel, that they may take you a red cow, wholly-sound, that has in it no defect, that has not yielded to a yoke[.]'" (Numbers 19:2, transl. Everett Fox.) Levi Yitzchak writes:

In our world, it appears to us as if we were created to engage in the things of this world. But in truth, that is not the case. The primary reason that we were created was so that we might come to recognize the unity of the Holy Blessed One...

That is the sense of "This is the law of the Torah:" there are mitzvot that reason compels us to perform. When we do them, we do not sense so strongly that we are performing them because the Creator commanded these mitzvot. That is why the Blessed Creator gave us commandments that reason does not comprehend. When we do them, we more readily recognize that we do them only because of God's commandment.

It's easy to understand why ethical commandments are important. How we treat one another matters. But ritual commandments, especially ones (like the red heifer) which don't make much sense -- those can be harder to cherish. For Levi Yitzchak, the illogic of a chok (a commandment which can't be made to fit our sensible paradigm) is precisely what makes it important. In accepting the chukim, we accept the "yoke of heaven" and acknowledge God's sovereignty.

There's something beautiful about that. It affirms that there are things in this vast universe which are beyond our comprehension and beyond our control. That life isn't all about us. That, as Levi Yitzchak writes, we were created for an ineffable purpose -- recognizing the fundamental unity of infinite God! All of our strivings and disagreements and philosophical ruminations are not the point. Performing chukim has an impact on our spiritual awareness. They're devotional practices, not intellectual exercises.

There's also something difficult about it. The red cow becomes a kind of red flag. Maybe especially for women, who may feel that we are always already trying to break free from the expectation that we will submit ourselves to priorities which come from someone else. The world is too full of hierarchy and power-over, and siting ourselves in a position of submission to incomprehensible mitzvot can feel like another iteration of the same old song and dance.

The Mishna talks about accepting the yoke of heaven upon ourselves, but what does that even mean, in a day and age when few of us have ever even seen oxen yoked? It's easy for the idea to feel uncomfortable, too much like unquestioning submission. Which may be fraught, even painful or impossible, to those who are already working to free themselves from subservience. The tradition knows that as well as we do -- just look at the story of the Exodus. When the Israelites were enslaved, they were incapable of covenant with God. Freedom was necessary first.

Of course, freedom is necessary but not sufficient. In order to live up to our whole and holy potential, we need to be free and in relationship with God. Still, I see in the Exodus story, and its aftermath, an awareness which can shape how those who today feel disempowered or disenfranchised might approach mitzvot. The yoke of heaven is necessarily something we choose, not something thrust upon us -- and a choice coerced by circumstance is no choice at all.

One of my teachers has suggested that the word mitzvah, usually translated as "commandment," can also be rendered "connection." The mitzvot connect us with God, and with one another. They place us in relationship.

Relationship with God, like relationships with one another, inevitably involves compromises. There are things I do because I want to do them, and things I do because they bring my partner joy -- and cutting either category out of my life would damage both me, and us. Just so, with God. There are things I do because I perceive that they enrich my days, and there are things I do because Jewish tradition teaches they are worthwhile. Maybe the practice of doing them opens me to a new kind of transformation. And maybe choosing to take on a practice is, itself, a radical and powerful change.

"Today we are all Jews by choice," writes Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. "The old understanding of being commanded was of commandments handed down the mountain, of an authority beaming down on us from above. Today any sense of commandment must come from within, from inside us. Can we feel commanded without feeling coerced?" Rabbi Marcia Prager poses a similar question: "Where, then, is the locus of the imperative once there is no commander, no coercion, once I can choose or relinquish obligations as I wish?"

More, she asks:

What do we do when we encounter a mitzvah we don't understand, or that we think we do understand and therefore reject? Is the system fixed and sealed, or is it flexible and unfolding? Is it ancient wisdom or ancient prejudices? Is the authority to craft the mitzvot allocated only to a hierarchy of male legalists in a particular chain of rabbinic command, or can we approach the evolution of mitzvot in a feminist, historical, and critical way? Do we practice only the things we understand and appreciate? Can we understand and appreciate without practice?

My answer to those last two questions is "no" -- though a delicate balance is required, and a healthy respect for paradox. For many of us, in this age of chosen-Judaism, it's hard to take on practices that don't immediately resonate -- even if we understand that some practices only resonate properly from the inside. The hardest thing may be making the leap of opening oneself to the possibility that an illogical practice can have transformative effect...and that's a leap each of us may have to make, not once, but repeatedly over the course of a lifetime.

Chukim (like the ritual of the red cow, and its decontaminating ashes) are the deepest level of mitzvah, and the hardest level to understand. The root of the word is one which denotes "engraved" -- these are the proverbial rules carved in stone. As Reb Zalman notes:

In order to reveal an engraved message, the medium of transmission must give up something of itself: this is what the chipping-out process of engraving entains. And the medium of transmission here is us. More than the other types of mitzvot, the chukim ask for a higher level of surrender to a will that is not our own.

Giving up something of myself isn't easy. Part of me rebels against it, and I have to work at discerning when that rebellion is healthy (feminism has valuable things to teach me about integrity and strength) and when it's an old defense mechanism (Judaism has valuable things to teach me about covenant and surrender.) In the end, this isn't an either/or -- neither feminism nor Judaism requires me to choose a single lens through which to see the world. Neither is the covenant detailed in this week's portion an either/or: mitzvot aren't binary, a single piece of whole cloth one either embodies or rejects. Each of us is a work-in-progress, and so is each person's relationship with mitzvot, and with power, and with God.

And how can we relate today to the chok which begins this portion, the ritual of the red cow without blemish -- no longer possible, in the absence of the Temple, and therefore ripe for revisioning in the new Jewish paradigm which we inhabit? For our ancestors, the sacrifice of a mother cow who had never been yoked offered a way to become tahor again after contact with death. What can we find in the deepest part of ourselves -- the part which has never submitted to anything -- to cast on the fire? What in ourselves should we burn in order to know ourselves as pure, no matter what loss or sorrow we have touched?