The Tisch: What we don't know

the mysterious red heifer was an exemplar for all Torah laws.

Painting by Yoram Raanan (photo credit: YORAM RAANAN)
Painting by Yoram Raanan
(photo credit: YORAM RAANAN)
The red heifer – its preparation, its potency and the aftermath of its use – is the most mysterious of Jewish rituals. It is considered the archetypal hok – a commandment that has no known reason. According to rabbinic tradition, King Solomon, the wisest of men, declared that it was beyond his ken (Ecclesiastes 7:23; Numbers Raba 19:3). According to another rabbinic tradition, Moses alone knew the reason for the red heifer; no other human being was ever privy to this information (Midrash Tanhuma, Hukat 8).
Commenting on the red heifer passage, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev (1740- 1809) stated his opinion about the possibility of knowing the reasons for the red heifer and for Torah laws in general.
“The rule [is thus]: The reasons for the Torah and the commandments are hidden from humankind. Rather, a person must keep and uphold the entire Torah because God commanded the person to keep the [Torah and commandments] and to uphold them.”
Rabbi Levi Yitzhak understood that the mysterious red heifer was an exemplar for all Torah laws.
Not only do we not know the reasons for it, but the reasons for all commandments are hidden from humankind. As a proof text for this reading, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak pointed to the first words of the biblical passage describing the red heifer ritual: This is the law of the Torah, as if to say – what is being taught here is applicable to the entire Torah.
Rabbi Levi Yitzhak expanded on this idea by saying that in general the soul of a person desires to fulfill the commandments, yet the body is not necessarily party to this desire. On the contrary, the body often prefers a course other than keeping Torah law. This dichotomy is the result of the fact that the body cannot fully appreciate the reasons for the divine commandments.
“If the body was to know the reasons for the Torah and the commandments, it would also want to fulfill the commandments.”
Alas, only the soul is privy to the reasons, hence it is only the soul that earnestly desires to uphold Torah. According to Rabbi Levi Yitzhak, not knowing the reasons for Torah laws is a systemic necessity that results from the physicality of the world.
Moreover, this lack of perception is what gives birth to the perpetual challenge of human existence: To give precedence to the yearnings of the soul over the desires of the body, and consequently to fulfill God’s commandments.
If we try to classify what type of reading is offered here, we might say that this explanation is bona fide hassidic Torah. It is a captivating idea related by a famed and beloved hassidic master. Furthermore, the explanation was printed in an early and seminal hassidic work. Most importantly, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak’s teaching offers a relevant and usable lesson for a meaningful Jewish life. Hassidism at its best.
Alas, classifying this approach as “hassidic” is far from clear. The student of Hassidism might be surprised to learn that a similar statement appears in Nefesh Hahaim – the famous work of Rabbi Haim of Volozhin (1749-1821) that presents an anti-hassidic theology.
Regarding knowing the reasons for various commandments, Rabbi Haim stated: “For the complete reasons for commandments were not revealed to any person in the world; not even Moses our master, of blessed memory.”
Thus Rabbi Haim seems to echo Rabbi Levi Yitzhak in saying that the reasons for all commandments – not just the enigmatic red heifer – are hidden. Moreover, both scholars felt that this situation was perforce the nature of reality, where lofty Torah is beyond the full comprehension of any human.
Could one scholar have copied the idea from the other? Perhaps the great opponent of Hassidism copied the idea from his hassidic contemporary who was nine years his senior? Perhaps in the last decade of his life, Rabbi Haim saw these words in Kedushat Levi – Rabbi Levi Yitzhak’s volume on the Torah that was first printed in 1811 – and included it in his Nefesh Hahaim that was printed posthumously in 1824? These explanations are highly unlikely. Moreover, the specific passage in Nefesh Hahaim includes an invective against those who claim to be privy to divine knowledge – presumably an attack on hassidic masters. This would hardly be the appropriate context for citing an explanation that appeared in Kedushat Levi.
There is a more plausible explanation for the confluence.
Simply put, both scholars were participating in a conversation that has vexed Jewish scholars for time immemorial. The Talmud records a dispute between two Second Temple sages, regarding whether the reasons for Torah commandments should serve as sources of law.
In the medieval period, great rabbis – most famously Maimonides (1138-1204) – discussed possible reasons for various Jewish laws. In fact, the great Barcelonan scholar Rashba (1235-1310) voiced a position similar to that of Rabbi Haim and Rabbi Levi Yitzhak.
This discussion reminds us how challenging it may be to delineate the innovations of Hassidism. Just because an idea is voiced by a hassidic master, or just because a position is explicated in a hassidic work – does not necessarily mean that it is a new reading that should be attributed to Hassidism. Even if an idea seems to reflect notions that are popularly perceived as “hassidic” – we should not be hasty in classifying them as such.
Hassidic masters did not read the classic texts of our hallowed tradition in a vacuum.
They opened these tomes – as do we – with a background of a lengthy and rich tradition of Jewish scholarship. They participated in centuries’ long discourses that continue to animate our thoughts and discussions. Not everything they said and taught, and not everything they printed, was necessarily an innovative hassidic idea.
A final word: Despite the gulf between Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev and Rabbi Haim of Volozhin, these two scholars meet in the timeless intellectual realm of delving into our tradition. 
The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah. He is currently a post-doctoral fellow in Tel Aviv University’s Faculty of Law.