Friday, April 19, 2013

Acharei Mos-Kedoshim - The Laws of Sexual Morality: When a Mishpat Appears to be a Chok

The latter portion of parshas Acharei Mos is a list of the various sexual prohibitions. Before it begins the list, the Torah provides an introductory paragraph (Leviticus 18:1-5), which, in five brief sentences, covers several significant themes:
וידבר ה' אל משה לאמר: דבר אל בני ישראל ואמרת אלהם אני ה' אלקיכם: כמעשה ארץ מצרים אשר ישבתם בה לא תעשו וכמעשה ארץ כנען אשר אני מביא אתכם שמה לא תעשו ובחקתיהם לא תלכו: את משפטי תעשו ואת חקתי תשמרו ללכת בהם אני ה' אלקיכם: ושמרתם את חקתי ואת משפטי אשר יעשה אתם האדם וחי בהם אני ה':
And God spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them: I am Hashem your God. You shall not do the actions of the land of Egypt, in which you lived, and you shall not do the actions of the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you, and you shall not walk in their ways. My laws (mishpatim) you shall do, and My decrees (chukim) you shall keep, to walk in them; I am Hashem your God. You shall keep My decrees and My laws, for a man shall do them and live by them, I am God.
While we can readily understand why the Torah would stress the importance of not imitating the ways of the Egyptians and Canaanite nations in its introduction to the sexual prohibitions, there are a number of less obvious themes stressed in this paragraph which require explanation.

Perhaps the most obvious is the repeated emphasis on the identity of God as the Commander of these laws. This, of course, is one of the most basic themes of the entire Torah, but why would it require special emphasis at this point?

Another theme that is strongly emphasized is the division of mitzvos into the categories of mishpatim and chukim - i.e. laws that, even if God had not commanded them, we would have needed to establish on our own, and laws which we only know by virtue of Divine revelation. According to the Sages (Yoma 67b and Sifra here), the laws of sexual morality are counted among the mishpatim - the laws accessible to reason - and there doesn't appear to be any obvious reason why the Torah should specifically emphasize this theme at this particular point.

I believe the Torah is actually making an extremely important point in this passage, and one that is of particular relevance to us today. The ultimate authority of all the mitzvos is the fact that they are commanded to us by God. Even though we are often able to recognize the necessity of a given mitzva based on our own understanding, we must never lose sight of the fact that the authority of the mitzvos does not depend on our comprehension of their purpose.

The categories of mishpatim and chukim are categories that exist only from a human perspective. Those laws which we are capable of comprehending are mishpatim, and those laws which we are not capable of comprehending are chukim. From God's perspective, however, there is obviously no such division.

Of course, as with all things, the ability to comprehend the mitzvos will vary from person to person. A mitzva that might be self-evident to one person may well be a total mystery to another. Perhaps even more importantly, mitzvos that might seem self-evident in one culture may be utterly incomprehensible in another.

While this can be seen in many areas, in no area is this more clear than when it comes to sexual morality. As we all know, different cultures often have radically different views on this subject. Moreover, as we have seen in the last century, even within a specific culture attitudes towards sexual morality can undergo radical change in a remarkably short period of time.

The Torah therefore goes out of its way to emphasize, in introducing these laws, that we must never forget Who gave us these laws, and that His laws are not dependent on our comprehension, and they do not change depending on the norms of the people around us. Whether we see these laws - or any specific aspect of these laws - as a mishpat or as a chok, we remain fully obligated to obey them.

To take this a step further, I believe there is an even deeper message in these passages. In the fourth verse of the introduction, the Torah tells us, "את משפטי תעשו ואת חקתי תשמרו ללכת בהם" - "My laws you shall do, and My decrees you shall keep, to walk in them." The words, "to walk in them," appear to be unnecessary and superfluous. The Sages (Sifra here, also cited by Rashi) explain that these words are actually referring to Torah study:
ללכת בהם עשם עיקר ואל תעשם טפלה. ללכת בהם שלא יהא משאך ומתנך אלא בהם שלא תערב בהם דברים אחרים בעולם. שלא תאמר למדתי חכמת ישראל אלמוד חכמת אומות העולם תלמוד לומר ללכת בהם אינך ראשי ליפטר מתוכן
"To walk in them" - Make them primary and not secondary.
"To walk in them" - Your discourse should be exclusively in them and you shall not intermingle other worldly matters with them.
A person should not say, "I have studied the wisdom of Israel, [and now] I shall study the wisdom of the nations of the world," for the Torah says, "To walk in them" - you are not authorized to take leave from them.
The Sages understand these words to be teaching us of the importance and primacy of Torah study, and, in particular, of the importance of not intermingling and equating the study of worldly knowledge or foreign wisdom with the Torah. While this is certainly an important basic concept, once again we have to explain why the Torah chose to stress this topic at this particular point.

To answer this question, I believe we need to return to our previous discussion on the categories of chok and mishpat. Based on what we said above - that the categories of mishpatim and chukim only exist from a human perspective, and that different people will often have very different perspectives on whether a given law is a mishpat or a chok - one might come to the conclusion that the distinction between mishpatim and chukim is entirely subjective. After all, as we just pointed out, there is no real difference between a chok and a mishpat. In either case, our obligation is the same. (Although there may be a difference with regards to perfecting our character, as Maimonides explains in chapter six of his Shemoneh Perakim.)

Nevertheless, the Torah strongly implies that these are actually objective categories. The Torah specifically refers to certain laws as mishpatim and others as chukim. Similarly, the Sages list specific commandments in each category (although there is no comprehensive list categorizing all of the mitzvos). This tells us that mishpatim are not simply those mitzvos that we happen to understand, but those mitzvos that a properly thinking human being will recognize as necessary. If the Torah and Sages categorize a given mitzva as a mishpat, then it is an error to categorize as as a chok, even if we find it incomprehensible. The fact that we find the mitzva incomprehensible, even though the Torah and the Sages say that it is a mishpat, indicates that, on some level, we are not thinking properly.

The failure to be able to properly recognize a mishpat as a mishpat is therefore indicative of a more basic flaw in our mental and spiritual state. As a general rule, the primary cause of such a flaw is the influence of our surrounding environment. As Maimondes writes (Hil. Deos 6:1), "it is the way of human nature for a person to be drawn, in his thoughts and deeds, after his neighbors and friends, and to behave in the manner of the people of his country."

It is for this reason that, specifically with regard to this topic, where the influence of the surrounding culture is particularly powerful, that the Torah emphasizes the importance of studying Torah - pure Torah - for it is only in this way that we can hope to overcome the influence of the surrounding culture so that we can recognize the self-evident immorality of behavior that, in the surrounding society, is seen as perfectly innocuous or even virtuous.

From this we can see that, as important as Torah study always is, to the degree that the surrounding environment becomes morally corrupt, especially with regard to sexual immorality, the more important it is for a Jew to focus on studying Torah with exclusive focus. I once heard in the name of Rav Yitzchak Hutner that in previous generations, a yeshiva was like the mishkan (Tabernacle) in the Jewish camp in the wilderness, for the entire community was a place of holiness and fear of God, and the yeshiva was simply a place of exceptional holiness. In our generation, however, Rav Hutner said that the yeshiva is like Noah's ark, for the outside world is flooded with explicit immorality, and the only place of shelter is within the walls of the yeshiva.

We live today in a time of extraordinary challenge for a Jew, in which the outside world appears to beckon welcomingly, but in which even our most basic morals and beliefs are often viewed with disdain and even condemnation. It can be extraordinarily difficult to avoid adopting many of the basic attitudes of the surrounding culture. It is all too common to find that even Jews who are fully observant have nevertheless internalized many of these basic attitudes, and often feel subtly embarrassed or ashamed of the teachings of the Torah. It is precisely for this reason that, in our generation, it is particularly important for us to stress and support Torah study.

UPDATE: I address some of these topics further in a follow-up post: The Sexual Prohibitions: Chukim or Mishpatim?

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