There's a fantastic scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade in which Dr. Jones is explaining to his class the basics about archeology. Archeology, he says, is the search for fact. It is not the search for truth.
The reverse is true about our Torah: It is not a book of fact, but a book of truth. Whether or not God it is a fact that God split a sea in two so that Israelites could cross the Red Sea, it is true that the Exodus narrative is essential to our identity.
In this sense, religion is not an exclusively rational enterprise. Many of our customs, laws and observances can not be explained through hypothesis or experiment. As intelligent, thoughtful people, we want to believe that there are underlying reasons for our system of Mitzvot. But often, when people ask, Rabbi, why is (insert specific Mitzvah here) something that we have to do, the answer is sometimes simply, Because that is what's in in the Torah.
And the Torah itself speaks to this tension between intellectual rigor and rationality on the one hand, and faithful observance to non-rational commandments on the other. There are two terms for commandments: mishpat and hok, Mishpatim and hukim.
Mishpatim are the commandments that are rational. Honor your father and mother. Do not murder. Do not place a stumbling block before the blind. These are all commandments that make sense. We don't need any sort of reason or motivation to do these. In fact, even if we knew nothing of the Torah, we would likely do many of these anyway.
But a hok is something else entirely. This is a commandment that is not necessarily rational. I want to be clear about something - it doesn't mean that the commandment is bad or not worth following. Hukim are commandments that we need to learn about from the Torah or a rabbi or a teacher - precisely because they are not rational.
Take tonight for instance. If you knew nothing about Judaism or the Torah, you wouldn't think to light two candles on the seventh night of the week. Lighting the Shabbat candles is an example of a ritual commandment, a hok that is not rational. But as we know, that certainly does not mean it is not meaningful.
This week's Torah portion, B'echukotai, is named for these Hukim, these commandments that require a bit of effort, a bit of stretching, a bit of faith.
Some of them we don't follow. I'm looking around the sanctuary and guessing that all of you drove here tonight, and did not walk. I'm guessing that during this Shabbat, many of us will use electricity (tap microphone.)
And there's also some rules we won't follow, not because they aren't convenient or because they don't make sense, but because we think they are wrong. As an example, we will not follow commandments that discriminate based on physical abilities, gender, or sexual orientation.
But at the same time, we shouldn't be so quick to write off these non-rational commandments, our Hukim. They are a part of our Torah and our tradition. They help make us more than a mensch or a good person. They make us Jewish. Rituals such as lighting Shabbat candles, fasting on Yom Kippur, and following the specific order of the Passover seder are integral to who we are. And taken together with the entirety of Torah, they are true.