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Parashat Vaetchanan: The Rationale Behind The Commandments

In this week’s Parasha, Parashat Vaetchanan, Moses repeats the importance of keeping God’s commandments when the people enter the Land of Israel.

Dr. Ari Ackerman, Chair of TALI Jewish Education at  the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, points out the fundamental differences between two types of commandments. On one hand we have commandments with rational explanations, and on the other, we have commandments with unclear, hidden rationales.

Full transcription below:

In this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Vaetchanan, we encounter a seminal phrase: the idea of Chukim and Mishpatim. This phrase points to a fundamental distinction between two types of categories. On the one hand, there are mitzvot, which are called Mishpatim and they refer to the commandments where the rationale and the reason is apparent to everyone.

There are prohibitions such as stealing and a murder where even if they weren’t revealed that we are prohibited to engage in these kinds of actions, we would know that we can’t steal and murder. This is contrasted with other commandments which are Chukim and in Chukim the reason and the rationale is hidden from human beings, for example, the commandment of Para Aduma – red heifer – the reason is inexplicable.

What we learn from a fundamental distinction is that Jewish thinkers throughout the ages have argued that the commandments, at least the majority of the commandments, have a ta’am – a rationale and a reason and they’re beneficial to human beings.

But there’s one very important Jewish thinker who denies this fundamentalist assumption. His name Yeshayahu Leibowitz, he’s one of the most important Jewish thinkers in the second half of the 20th century.

He’s an important Israeli public intellectual and he is one of the few Jewish thinkers who deny the idea of Ta’amei Hamitzvot. He argues that the reason that there are no reasons for the commandments is that the motivation to do the commandments is simply to subordinate our will to the will of God. He argues that if there was a rationale, if there was a human benefit for the commandments, if that’s the motivation to do the commandments, then we wouldn’t be worshipping God.

We’d be worshipping human beings and at the heart of the notion of Ahavat Hashem, to worship God, and what distinguishes Judaism from other religions is that God is at the center that we worship God— that we do the commandments simply as an expression of our commitment to God.

Prof. Ari Ackerman is the President of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies.

President Ackerman is Associate Professor for Jewish Philosophy and Jewish Education. Prior to his elevation to president, Ackerman held the (David) Golinkin Professor of TALI Jewish Education.  He received his PhD in Jewish thought from Hebrew University and was a researcher at the Institute for Advanced Studies, Princeton University. His most recent book is a Critical Edition of the Sermons of Zerahia Halevi Saladin (Beer Sheva University Press, 2013). Prof. Ackerman’s new book on creation and codification in the philosophy of Hasdai Crescas – Hasdai Crescas on Codification, Cosmology and Creation (Brill Press, 2022) is newly published. President Ackerman lives with his family in Jerusalem.

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