the standard accounts of Numbers 20, the story of Mei Meriva (the Waters of Strife), raise more difficult questions than satisfying answers. Foremost among them: What exactly was Moses' sin and why was he punished so severely?
We need not list exhaustively the numerous attempts to resolve these problems; they have troubled and perplexed classical, medieval and modern Jewish commentators. Such a survey would inevitably lead to the conclusion expressed by R. Yitzhak Arama almost five centuries ago: none of the explanations is satisfactory. Particularly troubling is the lack of any specific correlation between the various "sins" suggested and the subsequent punishment.
So, Hukkat and the question of Moses' sin have confounded rabbis throughout the ages. What's Rabbi Weiss' answer?
Well, it turns out Rabbi Weiss' drash doesn't really deal with the questions raised by the parsha itself. It's a little more free-flowing than that. Rather than rehashing the same old discussion, Rabbi Weiss turns his attention to the concept of a hok, or a law for which there is no clear explanation. In some ways this is fitting, since the parsha begins with a long list of hoks, detailing the statutes involving the Red Heifer and the sacrifice procedure- details which, all in all, seem fairly arbitrary and for which, indeed, no explanation is offered. Perhaps in some ways this correlates to the lack of explanation given for Moses and Aaron's punishment to die in the desert.
Rabbi Weiss reaffirms the importance and binding status of the hok, and notes that it runs counter to most modern conceptions of logic and reason:
The most mainstream approach to the meaning of “hok,” is that it is a law that does not and will not ever have a reason besides the fact that it is a decree from God. For this reason alone, it must be kept. In the words of the Talmud "It is an enactment from Me, and you are not permitted to criticize it." (Yoma 67b)
The idea that a law must be observed even if it has no rationale, runs contrary to the modern, critical approach to law -- that everything must have a reasonable explanation. However, this mainstream approach to hok is at the very core of the Jewish legal process.
That process is based on a belief in Torah mi-Sinai, the law given by God at Sinai to which the Jewish people committed itself. Torah mi-Sinai is a form of heteronomous law, a structure of law that operates independent of any individual or group.
Torah mi-Sinai reflects a system of ethics that comes from God. Halakha (from the root halakh, "to go,") is not random; it rather guides us, and is the mechanism through which individuals and society can reach an ideal ethical plateau. In the words of King Solomon: "Its ways are ways of pleasantness, and all its paths are peace." (Proverbs 3:17) One of the challenges of halakha is to understand how this law contributes to the repairing of the world (tikkun olam).
But this presumes that everything in the Torah is, in fact, from Sinai, and is automatically good or beneficial, and furthermore, that the Oral Law as transmitted and interpreted by the rabbis is also accurate and good. And, as the rabbi is about to point out, we humans are fallible creatures.
This system of God ethics differs from ethical humanism. Ethical humanism is solely based on what human beings consider to be proper conduct. Yet, this can be a dangerous approach to deciding law. Human thinking can be relative. What is unethical to one person is ethical to another. Freud is purported to have said, "When it comes to self deception, human beings are geniuses."
And rabbis, of course, are not human. Gotcha.
If however, the law at its foundation comes from God, it becomes inviolate. No human being can declare it null and void.
But we can interpret it to mean something totally different (is electricity fire or not?), and find various legal loopholes (sell your chametz to a non-Jew), and can figure out ways to get around it when it's extremely difficult to fulfill (the Temple)? That's all well and good, right?
Heteronomous law assures that one does not succumb to one's subjective notions or tastes when the law does not suit her or him. Therefore the law ought be kept even when its ethical underpinnings are not understood.
Oh yeah, because we all know that issues like the laws of niddah and differing views on male vs. female homosexuality totally weren't affected by things like the contemporary social mores of the rabbis.
And this in no small measure is why the idea of “hok” is so central. It reminds us of the limits of the human mind. As Rabbi Elie Munk points out: "An essential component of wisdom is the knowledge that man's failure to understand truth does not make it untrue."
But one cannot "know" something to be true without having the ability to identify it, and without an explanation or reason, things like a hok might just as well be, to continue the philosophical language, "false." The HONEST answer would be that there's no way to know why we have hoks, or even if they are, in fact, good, but that people who want to follow the law have to follow them, even if they don't know why. That's all you have to say. By extending the argument to get in cheap shots at humanism, Rabbi Weiss makes himself look ridiculous. "We're awesome because we do a bunch of seemingly arbitrary things that make no sense! In your face, humanism!"
I can respect people that keep hoks because they believe in following Torah, but trying to make it seem like hok-followers are somehow superior to the rest of us because they don't mind doing things without knowing why is pushing it a bit far. Furthermore, by eliminating any capacity within humans to make moral distinctions, Rabbi Weiss reduces us all to little more than poorly made flesh-robots, which reflects just as poorly on Orthodox Jews as on everybody else. After all, if we can't tell good from evil, how do we know hoks, or Torah, or even God, are good or true in the first place?
Defending things like the hok essentially comes down to "your reason can't be trusted because you're too little, trust ours instead." AKA, "Leave your brain at the door." This is particularly ironic given the intellectual rigor that has traditionally gone into the interpretation of halacha. If with all the greatest minds working on it, we still have no clue about why we should be following hoks, the honest answer should just be, "Because we're hedging our bets," not, "we don't know, but it's not because they make no sense or are arbitrary, it's because WE'RE all dumb."
Not to toss out the cultural relativism card, but couldn't this argument be applied ad infinitum? What Rabbi Weiss is essentially saying is that people shouldn't raise doubts about things that appear not to make sense or have no cause because humans are too small-headed or limited in perspective to understand the true import. Fair enough if we're dealing with an omnipotent being, but the argument eats itself when you realize that Judaism has been interpreted and enforced through the authority OF humans.
If anything, Rabbi Weiss' argument is downright scary if you think about it a little, because it suggests that humans can't make intelligent decisions about logic or reason or morality or ethics AT ALL. In which case, how are we to know that Judaism's ethical values, much less ritual commandments, are true or good? Maybe Shintoism had it right this whole time, and we didn't- and are in fact incapable of figuring it out, because we're all too damn stupid. In his quest to beef up faith at reason's expense, Rabbi Weiss opens up a very tricky can of worms.
Sorry Rabbi. If you want to keep your hoks, go nuts. I can't. Something that has no logical explanation whatsoever does not get to be a requirement for me because you say so. At best, it becomes a very weak recommendation, a-la-Kaplan's vote-not-veto. People should seek out causes, not settle for shrugging their shoulders and accepting the religious status-quo.
I'm backing Moses on this one. Sometimes God's calls make no sense. And there's no shame is saying it.