It is well known that some Torah commandments are defined as “rational,” classed as mishpatim, while others are presented as “supra-rational,” called chukim.

Rational laws were issued along with a logical reason or are obvious to any thinking individual. Typical examples are the laws against stealing or murder. Regulations that are regarded as non-rational never come with an explanation, as their reason is known only to the Almighty. The classic example of the latter is the law of the Red Heifer.

One of the great questions of Jewish philosophy is: Should we seek to figure out the reasoning for the non-rational commandments? Is it OK for us to sneak a peek behind the veil that shrouds the commandments and attempt to unravel their mysteries? Maimonides seems to offer mixed messages.

He writes in his great Mishneh Torah legal code:

“Even though all the chukim of the Torah are decrees [without any rational explanation], it is appropriate to meditate upon them and provide a reason wherever possible. The Sages of the early generations said that King Solomon understood most of the rationales for all the statutes of the Torah.1

Maimonides could not be clearer: The chukim are not essentially illogical; it is only that the reasons have been kept hidden from us. Thus, it is worthy to strive to attribute a reasoning for those commandments.

By contrast, in Eight Chapters (his introduction to Ethics of the Fathers), Maimonides appears to state the exact opposite when offering his analysis of the following passage from the Talmud:

“A person should not say ‘I could not possibly imagine myself committing the sin’; rather, he should say, ‘I could imagine myself committing the sin, but what can I do since my Father in Heaven decreed that I may not.’ ”

Maimonides explains that this teaching only applies to chukim, commandments that logic does not compel. Regarding these mitzvot, where there is no obvious moral reason (except for the fact that the Torah forbids it), it is right that a person should state that he restrains himself purely out of fealty to the Almighty.

By contrast, with regard to any commandment that is compelled by logic, in no way should a person say, “I could have done that act,” as to any decent person that those acts are patently immoral, and it is natural for a person to be repulsed by them.

According to Maimonides’ understanding here, then, when it comes to chukim, a person should look to conjecture rational explanations, but should instead view them all as commandments that are complied with purely because that is what “my Father in Heaven decreed.”

So, which one is it? Do I treat chukim as non-rational and comply due to Divine fiat, or do I attempt to figure out their proper explanation? How could it be both?

The Rebbe gives two insights that transform our understanding of this issue. What appears to be an irreconcilable contradiction becomes easily resolved.

The first point is that the rational mishpatim laws are so logical that, as the Talmud says, “if they were never written, they should have by right been written.”2 In other words, had the Torah never mandated those laws, we would have created them on our own. They are what is known in philosophy as “moral imperatives.” The human mind finds them to be obviously right.

By contrast, chukim are never compelled by logic, even if we can provide a reason that makes sense. Had the Torah not mandated those laws, there is no chance that we would have come up with them ourselves. This is beautifully alluded to by Maimonides himself when he writes, “Most of the Torah's laws are nothing other than “counsels given from distance” from “He Who is of great counsel”3 to improve one’s character and make one’s conduct upright.”

Chukim will always remain “counsel from afar.” Even if we can secure some understanding of their purpose, they remain something that comes from “afar.” They are the product of a Higher Mind that we may be able to grasp, but are not truly rational notions.

That is why even if chukim can be somewhat understood they are never obviously so. Even if a person strives to understand the chukim, he is still rightly able to say that the main reason for abiding by chukim is because “my Father in Heaven so decided,” not because logic demands it.

The second point is that when it comes to mishpatim both the general law and its specifics are rationally explainable. With regards to chukim, however, the details shall forever remain unexplained. For example, even if we may be able to offer a rationally satisfying reasoning for the Biblical concept of impurity (tum’ah) – not an easy feat, to say the least – we shall utterly fail to explain the reasons for the vast minutiae.4

Maimonides comes very close to saying this in his Guide for the Perplexed:

“All the Commandments have a rational reason at least insofar as the general principle, and they were commanded for a particular purpose, but the details that were set out for the application of the general rule… for these it is impossible to give any reason at all.”5

Maimonides seems to be saying that even when it comes to mishpatim, some details will elude explanation, but with chukim virtually none of the specifics will enjoy a satisfying reason. Thus, even if one were to follow Maimonides’ advice to seek out the reasons for chukim, this is limited only to the main ideas. As for the remainder, we are left saying that this is only due to our obedience to His Will.

So, when it comes to seeking a reason for chukim, we should strive to intellectually grasp whatever we can, as Maimonides says in his Code. But we should also recognize that the reasoning will never be fully compliant with human reason, and we should abandon all attempts to justify the specific sub-laws – as he says in his Eight Chapters.

Here we have the essence of what it is to be a G‑d-fearing person: to the extent possible we shall try to “know the L‑rd”6 – to use our mind to penetrate as deeply as we can into the meaning of every commandment. We do not say, “As I am willing to comply with all the commandments of faith, why does it matter whether I understand the reasons?”

We were granted the great gift of intelligence so we may use it to the fullest to understand the Almighty’s teachings. And we were also blessed with the great gift of faith which we use to be able to wholeheartedly embrace that which we cannot understand.

Adapted from Likkutei Sichot, vol. 32, Bechukotai II (pg. 174-180)