The Reasons For Jewish Laws

In his third lecture on Deuteronomy in 2002, Dennis Prager says: “The rabbis [of the Talmud] distinguished between chukim (laws between man and God) and mishpatim (laws between man and man) as chukim are laws we can not understand and mishpatim are laws we can understand.

“There is a real problem asserting at the outset that there are laws we can not understand. If you believe that there are many laws that you can not understand, then you will never seek to understand them. That ends intellectual inquiry into their purpose.

“I grew up in the world that learned this way. It was the most difficult aspect of the thinking of the Judaism I was raised in, that there were laws I can never understand. There may well be, but to declare it at the outset means that it is pointless to try to understand.

“That leads to some terrible consequences — to an unintellectual observance of rules.

“For example, the law in Judaism of how you slaughter an animal. You take a blade that is extremely sharp, can not have any nick in it, and you have to be able to slice the animal’s throat in one cut across the neck.

“Everybody I know understands this as a way to minimize the animal’s suffering. Presumably the shochet (slaughterer) does it quickly.

“I was explaining this to a group in Halifax, Nova Scotia, about 25 years ago.

“In the audience was a newly ordained Orthodox rabbi who was trying out for his first pulpit.

“After I spoke about this, he politely raised his hand and said, ‘I disagree with Mr. Prager. We do not know why Jewish law ordains a sharp knife without a nick in it. He proclaims that it is to reduce the animal’s suffering but we don’t know that. The proof is that under Jewish law I can take a very long time in the speed with which I cut the animal’s throat, and then the animal will suffer.’

“I wanted to punch him. It was so painful to hear this was what he believed and this is what he was telling Jews, none of whom kept kosher.

“I believe you have to do things because God said so, but even if God said so, why did God give me a brain if not to understand why he said so?”

“Deuteronomy 4:1 says that these are the laws ‘so that you may live.’ So we’re told there is a purpose. Moses himself is giving a whole series of purposes to Biblical law. Do this so that you may live. If you don’t do this, you’ll die.”

“God is saying, I took you out of Egypt so that you could lead a holy life in the holy land.”

“This is how I justify God’s periodic decimation of the Jews when they leave the covenant.”

“If you don’t lead a holy life, I will have nothing to do with you and if I have nothing to do with you, you will die.”

Deuteronomy 4:6: “Observe them carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations, who will hear about all these chukim (decrees) and say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.'” (NIV)

Dennis: “This sentence is the basis for my outlook on the purpose of Judaism.”

“The purpose of following chukim is so that the nations of the world look at you and be impressed that these are wise people and that these are wise laws that govern their lives. How could chukim mean laws we can’t understand if the rest of the world is supposed to understand them?

“They’ll just think, what a weird people! They observe laws we can’t understand.

“That is what the nations have often said about Jews. What a weird people. Why can’t they do this on Saturday and why do they dress like this?

“There’s nothing more tragic — aside from the loss of Jewish life — that this has not made sense to the world. The purpose of the Jewish people is to bring the world to God. How can you bring the world to God if you do things that the world can’t understand?”

“Because Jews can’t eat chicken with milk [thanks to rabbinic strictures], the whole lesson [that meat represents death and milk represents life and there should be no mixing] has been killed because chickens are not mammals. No mammaries, no mammals. Originally, there were rabbis of the Talmud who ate chicken with milk.

“God wants us to look wise… When you can explain what you do, the goyim find you more wise. And so do non-observant Jews.”

Deut: 4:7 “What other nation is so great as to have their gods near them the way the LORD our God is near us whenever we pray to him?” (NIV)

Dennis: The Torah says that greatest does not come from great numbers or from great power, but from wisdom and understanding.

“That’s exactly where Jewish greatness has come from. When people are impressed by Jews, it has been for wisdom and understanding or related to the intellectual or moral realm. Jewish greatness has never relied on power. Jewish greatness relies on the quality of life it leads and on their being intelligent.”

Deut: 4:8 “And which is a great nation that has righteous decrees and ordinances, such as this entire Torah that I place before you this day?” (Artscroll)

Dennis: “Laws can be unrighteous, so Moses adds an adjective about the type of laws we have. If chukim mean laws we can’t understand, how can he call them righteous? Adding that that they are righteous, it means you can understand.”

“The Torah is clear that how you look to the other nations is the whole point of this. God is interested in everybody. He has chosen a people to do something for the rest of humanity — to bring a message to them about God and holiness.”

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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