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I had the honor last Sunday of leading a group of fifth graders in Torah study of parashat Mishpatim. Students in fifth grade, in my experience, are still somewhat unfettered enough by societal conditioning that they can and do engage in free inquiry and thinking "outside the box."
I began by using illustrations from contemporary life to illustrate the essential difference between chukim and mishpatim. They seemed to catch on fairly quickly to the (admittedly simplified) concept that mishpatim generally had some basis in rational thought and natural patterns whereas chukim were rules that, at least superficially, appeared to have no natural or rational purpose behind them. (Keep in mind I'm talking to fifth graders, so I'm not going to put to fine a point on these things.)
Before examining some of the commandments in Mishpatim, we tackled the aseret hadibrot from last week, working our way through crude distinctions between mishpatim and chukim. They proved fairly adept at the process, although they were already beginning to suspect the existence of gray areas, as their responses grew less certain. As we wove our way into Mishpatim, I took some opportunities to devise logical or natural explanations for some of the commandments that were labeled chukim, further eroding their confidence. Nevertheless they persevered in attempting to make the distinction. I have to give them credit for being willing to take a stand!
I didn't raise it myself-I waited for the question to come up, and, eventually, it did: "so why should we follow the chukim, if they have no rational basis?" (well, I think the student's question used different vocabulary, but you get the drift...) Lots of interesting answers:
Because people are generally evil and selfish Because people are dumb and don't know any better Because people can't always see the "big picture" and of course: Because Gd said so.
I was somewhat pleasantly surprised by the support for that last answer from a large group of Reform fifth graders. A few offered the challenge "but what if you don't believe in Gd, should you still follow them?" Without missing a beat, another student answered: "It doesn't matter who wrote them, what matters is that, as Jews, we have a covenant that requires us to keep them."
A few students parroted the idea that "well, we're Reform, we don't have to do any of that." They were definitely a minority, and taken to task by quite a few critical thinkers in the group. One young person said "if you're going to say some commandment doesn't make sense so we don't have to follow it anymore, you have to first see if you can figure out why it might have made sense then." "But what if it didn't make sense back then," said one. "Yeah, they were already making mishpatim and chukim different from the beginning," said another. A third commented "back then, they knew they were supposed to do what Gd told them to do, and not to talk back!"
Without any prompting from me, another student said: "But what about the mishpatim that don't make sense any more? They might have been natural to the Israelites, but know we know better."
Sadly, we ran out of time to take the discussion much further, but I suspect (and pray) that many of those students will keep asking these questions and thinking these critical thoughts, and even, when critical thought fails them, consider resorting to faith. They had good questions and good comments. We, ourselves, would do well to think about them, and see if we can do so with the freedom of the mind of a fifth grader. How does one differentiate between chukim and mishpatim? Are the lines clear or fuzzy? What do we do with a mishpat that followed known nature at the time but has since been outdated? Why keep those commandments? And why keep the chukim? Are they all without some obvious natural basis, are we just not enlightened enough to understand them? Do we keep them because we are covenanted to and for no other reason? Do we keep them so that we may come to understand them, in the spirit of na'aseh v'nishma? That is our task this Shabbat-to ask these questions, and not be afraid to answer them. We must not be afraid to take a stand.
And if I learned one really great thing from these kids, it is that even among kids from truly liberal backgrounds, the idea of "na'aseh v'nish'ma" is alive and well. Hallelu Yh
© 2000 by Adrian A. Durlester
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