A post in honor of David Guttmann, whose thoughtful question motivated me to finally commit these ideas to writing.
It is well known that the commandments of the Torah are traditionally divided into two categories, "Hukkim" and "Mishpatim". Mitsvot that regulate social behavior and whose benefit to society is obvious are termed "Mishpatim". Examples of this include laws against theft and murder. By contrast, "Hukkim" are mitsvot whose purpose is not so easy to divine, such as laws against wearing wool and linen together or eating non-kosher foods.
On the surface, it is difficult to understand why this method of classification is justified. Does it make sense to categorize commandments simply based on whether we can provide a logical explanation for them or not? Isn't there a more meaningful criterion to use for grouping the mitsvot?
The Rambam, at the end of Hilchot Meilah, presents a lengthy discussion of the distinction between hukkim and mishpatim:
It is proper for a person to contemplate the laws of the Holy Torah and to grasp their purpose according to his ability. And something for which he cannot find a reason and he does not know a cause - it should not be light in his eyes...And his thinking about it should not be like his thinking regarding mundane matters. Look at how strict the Torah was with meilah (misappropriating items that were designated for the Temple.) Sticks, stones, dirt and ashes, once they had the name of the Master of the World called upon them, with words alone they become consecrated - and anyone who treats them as mundane commits sacrilege and even if he sins inadvertently, he requires atonement. How much more so a commandment that the Holy One, Blessed is He formulated for us...
Behold, it says in the Torah, "And you shall keep all of My statutes (hukkim) and My ordinances (mishpatim) and do them" The Rabbis said that this verse commands "keeping" and "doing" for the hukkim and mishpatim. "Doing" is obvious - it means performing the hukkim. And "keeping" means being careful with them, and not imagining that they are less than the mishpatim. And mishpatim are the commandments whose reason is obvious and the benefit of their fulfillment in this world is known, such as the prohibitions of theft, murder, and the commandment to respect parents. And the hukkim are commandments whose reason is not obvious...
And the inclination of man resists them, and the nations of the world argue against them - like the prohibition of pork or meat and milk, the commandment of the decapitated calf, the red heifer and the scapegoat. King David was terribly distressed over the fact that the heretics and idolaters rejected the hukkim. And the more they chased after him with false arguments that they formulated according to the frailty of the human intellect, the more King David became attached to the Torah...
And all of the sacrifices are included among the hukkim. The Rabbis say that it is because of the sacrificial service that the world continues to exist. For by virtue of the performance of the hukkim and mishpatim, the righteous earn a portion in the World to Come. And the Torah gave precedence to the fulfillment of the hukkim, as it says, "And you shall keep My statutes and My ordinances which a man does, and lives by them."
In these halachot, the Rambam seems to raise more questions than he answers. First of all, why does he launch into an elaborate analysis of hukkim and mishpatim at the end of Hilchot Meilah? Throughout the Mishneh Torah, the Rambam expounds upon every one of the 613 commandments - hukkim and mishpatim - yet he reserves his primary treatment of the topic of hukkim for this unusual context.
Second, what is the Rambam's essential point about hukkim? He mentions that they are scorned by the nations of the world, while at the same time emphasizing their overall superiority to mishpatim. It seems as if the Rambam maintains that the very fact that the gentiles ridicule the hukkim is proof of their importance. Why should this be the case?
And finally, if the arguments of the nations of the world against the hukkim are false, why doesn't King David refute them rather than ignoring them?
I believe that the concept the Rambam is identifying here is of crucial significance for a proper understanding of the Torah in general. Human beings have an intuitive sense of good and bad and right and wrong when it comes to matters of material importance. There is no question in our minds that these issues are very real and very serious. For this reason, all societies have laws that regulate commerce, prohibit murder and theft, and generally protect the physical welfare of their members. These laws - mishpatim - have a purpose that is manifestly obvious to the nations of the world, precisely because the values that mishpatim promote - i.e., material values - are acknowledged as significant by all people, everywhere.
This is what makes the hukkim seem so mysterious. Any search for a mundane explanation of hukkim would necessarily be in vain. This is because hukkim are not designed to promote the material welfare of the Jews and cannot be fathomed in that context. On the contrary, hukkim serve to facilitate intellectual and moral growth alone. Whether it is through restricting our instinctual gratification or directing our minds to the perception of God's hand in nature, the hukkim serve to move us closer to the philosophical goal for which we were divinely chosen.
From the perspective of the committed Jew, the hukkim are the very lifeblood of a meaningful, grounded, spiritually attuned existence. Yet they are rooted in ideals and principles that seem otherworldly and even counterintuitive to an outsider. Precisely because the benefit of hukkim cannot be explained in terms that make sense to a materialistic person, they are scorned and derided by the nations of the world.
Two examples will illustrate my point more clearly. The notion of an FDA that prohibits the sale of unhealthy or tainted food is comprehensible to anyone, because unhealthy food can harm the body, and all human beings value the condition of their bodies. By contrast, only individuals who strive for a good that transcends the physical can possibly appreciate the ideas exemplified in kashrut, which places a limit on hedonistic indulgence in order to increase spiritual growth.
Similarly, any person can grasp the benefit to be had from an education that prepares one to enter the workforce and make a living. However, only individuals who attach value to the metaphysical objectives of the Torah can possibly appreciate the beauty of Shabbat, a day dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake.
A pure pragmatist who thinks only in terms of physical pleasure, material gain and economic productivity will dismiss the hukkim as at best useless and at worst nonsensical. Within the framework of his value system, he simply cannot see the merit of rituals and restrictions that yield no concrete benefit whatsoever. This is why King David did not even try to defend the hukkim in the eyes of the world. He realized that the failure of his contemporaries to perceive the beauty of the hukkim was the result of the inherent poverty of their outlook on life. Their total commitment to materialistic priorities necessarily robbed the hukkim of any value in their eyes; they simply refused to attribute any substance to matters of the spirit.
Herein lies the connection between hukkim and meilah, or sacrifices in general. The concept of consecration is, by its very definition, a contradiction to materialistic sensibilities - it is an abstract, metaphysical phenomenon that nonetheless exerts a major influence on human behavior. The mere designation of an animal as a sacrifice suddenly removes a perfectly useful source of food or labor from the domain of human control, relegating it to Temple use. Thus, the very institution of sacrificial laws demands that we acknowledge the real existence of a realm of values and principles that transcends our personal and petty interests and even requires us to curb them - "once they have the name of the Master of the World called upon them...anyone who treats them as mundane commits sacrilege, etc."
We must recognize that there is a framework of tremendous significance and glorious beauty that lies totally outside of the world of the concrete and practical; namely, the framework of Divine Service. Once an item is consecrated and it enters that framework, it is placed outside of the reach of our pragmatic agendas, appetites and business plans. This makes the laws of sacrifices a perfect example of the ultimate objective of the hukkim - namely, to teach us that we must treat the spiritual with an even greater sense of reality and urgency than we typically associate with the physical.
Now we can fathom why the Rambam extols the hukkim above the mishpatim. Safeguarding the physical welfare of society is the most basic aim of any legal system; indeed, for most legal systems, it is the only aim. The Torah shares this objective and legislates mishpatim accordingly. However, with its introduction of the hukkim, the Torah demonstrates its uniqueness as a guide to human life. The hukkim do not enhance our mastery or our enjoyment of the physical world per se. If anything, they stand in the way of the endless pursuit of instinctual gratification and material wealth; indeed, their whole function is to contradict our natural inclination to measure goodness and substance in physical terms. They require us to pull our energies away from the concrete and channel them into the intellectual, metaphysical and transcendent.
This explains another unusual comment of the Rambam. In Pirkei Avot, we read:
Shimon the Righteous was one of the last of the Men of the Great Assembly. He used to say: On three things does the world stand: On Torah, on Divine Service, and on acts of lovingkindness.
The Rambam remarks:
He said that by virtue of knowledge (which is the Torah), and excellences of character (which are acts of lovingkindness), and fulfillment of the commandments (which are sacrifices), the design of the world and the harmony of its existence continues in the most perfect manner.
In light of our analysis here, we can understand why, for the Rambam, sacrifices are the ultimate example of "commandments" as distinct from "acts of lovingkindness." Acts of lovingkindness fall under the category of mishpatim - their benefit is understandable, even from a purely practical standpoint. After all, generosity of spirit and nobility of character foster peace, civility and harmony in society, and this is praiseworthy by any standard.
By contrast, hukkim ask us to break free from the narrow confines of the pragmatic and make the pursuit of knowledge, wisdom and sanctity our highest priority. This is best exemplified in the sacrifices. By definition, sacrifice involves the subordination of precious material resources to a metaphysical purpose that flies in the face of utilitarianism. As such, the sacrifices are the paradigm for all Divine Service. They differentiate the community of Israel, which strives to actualize its potential as a wise and understanding nation that sanctifies God's name from communities that measure their growth in terms of the Dow Jones industrial average and the Gross National Product.
A society that has mishpatim but lacks hukkim may develop wonderful methods for enhancing the "quality of life", all the while leaving its citizens in the dark when it comes to the purpose of life itself. This is a paradoxical situation that Einstein aptly described as a "perfection of means" coupled with a "confusion of ends."