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Red cow sleeping all curled up with Chukat spelled in Hebrew in the center

Parashat Chukat: Descartes’ Error

Parashat Chukat: Descartes’ Error

Sacks, Rabbi Lord Jonathan ZT"L
July 10, 2024

The Role of Emotion in Decision-Making

Too much takes place in the mind for us to be fully aware of it… One result of the new neuroscience is that we are becoming aware of the hugely significant part played by emotion in decision-making…

The Logic of Chukim in Judaism

That, as we can now see, is the logic of the chukim, the “statutes” of Judaism, the laws that seem to make no sense in terms of rationality. These are laws like the prohibition of sowing mixed seeds together (kelayim); of wearing cloth of mixed wool and linen (shaatnez); and of eating milk and meat together. The law of the Red Heifer with which our parsha begins, is described as the chok par excellence. As it is written: “This is the statute of the Torah.” Num. 19:2.

Interpretations of Chukim Through the Ages

There have been many interpretations of the chukim throughout the ages. But in the light of recent neuroscience, we can suggest that they are laws designed to bypass the prefrontal cortex, the rational brain, and create instinctive patterns of behaviour to counteract some of the darker emotional drives at work in the human mind.

The prohibitions against sowing mixed seeds, mixing meat and milk, combining wool and linen, and so on, create an instinctual respect for the integrity of nature. They establish boundaries. They set limits. They inculcate the feeling that we may not treat our animal and plant environment however we wish.

As for the ritual of the Red Heifer, this is directed at the most destructive pre-rational instinct of all: what Sigmund Freud called thanatos, the death instinct. He described it as something “more primitive, more elementary, more instinctual than the pleasure principle which it over-rides”… The Red Heifer ritual is a powerful statement that the holy is to be found in life, not death… Chukim are Judaism’s way of training us in emotional intelligence, above all a conditioning in associating holiness with life, and defilement with death. It is fascinating to see how this has been vindicated by modern neuroscience.

The Balance of Rationality and Emotion

Rationality, vitally important in its own right, is only half the story of why we are as we are. We will need to shape and control the other half if we are successfully to conquer the instinct to aggression, violence, and death that lurks not far beneath the surface of the conscious mind.


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