I have heard it said that whilst mishpatim are mitzvos that generally make sense to human beings, the chukim have no reason behind them. The sense I sometimes get is that chukim are arbitrary – meaningless actions picked randomly by God to be His laws in order that we have faith in him and listen to Him, even when what he says makes no sense. Hashem could just as well have picked a cow as a pig to be non-kosher.
There is nothing intrinsic that makes the pig not kosher and the cow kosher. He could equally have called silk and cotton ‘shatnez’; it has nothing to do with the nature of wool and linen. He could have picked a pink flamingo rather than a red heifer and, for that matter, told us to stand on our heads for fifteen minutes three times a day as one of His mitzvos.
In my mind, this is a misunderstanding of the sources (perhaps Rashi Vayikra 19:19) and a damaging misunderstanding at that. Whilst there is certainly room for differing explanations of the concept of chukim, there is no one who says they are entirely devoid of reason. Obviously so; if God would mandate laws for no reason, the Torah would no longer be a book of wisdom, but a book of actions without intrinsic meaning. But quite the opposite is true; it is about the chukim themselves that the Torah (Devarim 4:6) says the nations will say, ‘what a wise and insightful nation is this nation’.
Worse than simply being wrong, I believe this perspective makes something of a mockery of Torah – as though God sat, so to speak, and tossed coins to decide which actions would constitute mitzvos and which would not. Heads the pig’s kosher; tails it’s not.
The Rambam (Temurah 4:13) says that, ‘Shlomo Hamelech understood the reasons behind most of the Torah’s chukim’. The well-known Medrash (Yalkut Shimoni Chukas 759) goes further and says that Shlomo understood all of Torah apart from the Parah Adumah. But even about Parah Aduma, we are told (Bamidbar Rabbah 19:6) that its reason was indeed revealed to Moshe Rabbeinu. Clearly, far from being random, there is a logic behind every chok. As Einstein said, albeit in another context, ‘God does not play dice’.
Every mitzvah, chukim included, is a manifestation of Hashem’s wisdom in this world. It is an action that intrinsically brings us closer to Hashem (or, in the case of an aveirah takes us further away) not because Hashem decided this randomly, but because the nature of the Universe that He set up is such. Like Physics describes the physical world, mitzvos – chukim included – describe the spiritual. The difference between chukim and mishpatim is that chukim, whilst rooted in truth and wisdom, are a great deal more challenging to understand. Just like you cannot hope to understand Einsteinian Physics before you have understood Newtonian, so too, if you do not yet understand the nature and essence of the spiritual world, you cannot hope to understand the chukim which describe our soul’s relationship with it.
There is a slightly differing view to the Rambam, expressed mainly in the sifrey kabbalah v’chassidus. It is that the chukim are expressions of God’s Will, that transcend the logic of olam hazeh. But, even according to this, chukim are not, chas v’shalom, arbitrary. They are expressions of God’s Will. And God’s Will is absolute and not random. God’s Will dictated that a pig be kosher. It was not a choice God made, rather a deeper truth associated with God’s intrinsic truth. A truth, with a small ‘t’, that is a manifestation of Truth with a capital.
Coming back to the Rambam, however, chukim are more than this. Kashrus, shatnez and parah aduma are ultimately as understandable as don’t kill, don’t covet and don’t steal. They just require a deeply wise and spiritually developed human being to do so. I would hope that each and every one of us would aspire to become such a person and ultimately come to understand the chukim in a similar way to the mishpatim. Until such a time, of course, Klal Yisroel said ‘naaseh vunishma’ and we accept the chukim as ‘decrees of the king’ to be adhered to even though we do not yet understand their meaning.