Chukim and Mr. Rogers

What was your first concert?

Mine was Mr. Rogers. I saw him somewhere in Culver City, or maybe it was Westchester. I don’t remember because I was only five or six years old at the time, seven at the latest. I’ve been thinking about Fred Rogers lately because of several documentaries that feature him. I haven’t seen both films yet, although I will. But I’ve encountered Fred Rogers over and over again, first in my youth and then as an adult. I also thought of him this week, partially because of the movies, and partially because of this week’s Torah portion and its connection to his sweaters.

In this week’s portion, V’etchanan, which is the second portion of the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses is addressing the Children of Israel, who are standing at the edge of the Jordan River. They are preparing to cross over and enter the Promised Land and will encounter myriad challenges ahead. Moses is encouraging the Israelites to follow the mitzvot, the commandments, that God has given them as an expression of love and as terms of our covenant. That is, God protects and sustains us; in return, we follow God’s instructions. Two words are repeated time after time in this section to describe these mitzvot. Some of the mitzvot are classified as chukim, and others are referred to as mishpatim. The rabbis wondered why there were two different terms. What’s the difference between chukim and mishpatim? (I know I’m far afield from Mr. Roger’s sweater, but stay with me.) Rashi states that the difference between chukim and mishpatim is that chukim are laws we don’t understand, while mishpatim are laws we do understand. For instance, we are not supposed to weave wool and cotton into the same cloth. Why? I don’t know, although I actually have a theory as to why. Of course, they followed the mitzvah anyway—God gave it, so we do it. Mishpatim, on the other hand, are understandable. It is clear why we shouldn’t murder or use false weights in business. Mishpatim are simply laws that make sense.

Many rabbis—for example, Moses Maimonides—would take a chok, which no one understood, and would come up with a possible reason for the commandment. You probably know one of those reasons. We are not supposed to eat pork. Is that a chok, where we don’t understand the reason, or a mishpat, where we do understand? How many of you have been asked why pork isn’t kosher, and you answered, “Pigs carry trichinosis. Refraining from pork was a health rule.” Maimonides’s claim that pigs are dirty and unhealthy was his attempt to take a chok and turn it into a mishpat. By the way, I think his reasoning was wrong. If it was about health, we wouldn’t be able to eat chocolate babka, and if that were the case, what would be the purpose of living? Many rabbis didn’t like coming up with reasons for the mitzvot because if someone comes up with a reason and the reason changes, we may stop following the mitzvah. And that’s exactly what happened. Many Jews said, “We don’t need those laws of kashrut; we have the FDA, and bacon is delicious.

Some rabbis said we should leave the chukim as mysteries and simply follow them because God gave them. We should not act out of our reason; rather, we should act only out of our strong faith in God and in God’s Torah. I understand that those rabbis didn’t want a person to refrain from following a mitzvah just because they were unable to think of a sufficient rationale but refraining from considering reasons for our religious actions prevents us from growing and maturing as a religious community. I want my faith and practice to grow over time, and I want reason to be one of the pathways to update my faith.

I find that for many of my fundamentalist friends, faith is often worn like a suit of armor. For them, faith is meant to protect us from foreign ideas that threaten and subvert. But I don’t want to wear my faith like armor. I want to wear my faith lightly, like a sweater. Like one of Mr. Rogers’s sweaters.

Wearing our faith like a sweater changes the purpose of faith. No longer do we use faith to keep other ideas out. We explore new ideas, watch them develop over time, and use our God-given minds and hearts to incorporate true and valuable ideas into our system of beliefs and into our lives. How many years ago was it that homosexuality and, certainly, homosexual marriage were considered psychologically deviant and morally sinful? For thousands of years, our stony faith in God prevented many people from exploring other ways of appreciating this important group of people within our community and world. But as our knowledge grew, our faith grew as well. Many of us unwove the part of our faith concerning the harsh condemnations of homosexuality, and we stitched in new yarn of compassion and understanding.

There is a difference between armor-faith and sweater-faith. Armor-faith leads to beliefs impervious to change, faith that may be uncomfortable but at least is stable—faith that is ready for battle. Sweater-faith, on the other hand, is colorful and warms us. It may leave us vulnerable to the pains and challenges of life, but, in truth, armor-faith just creates a different set of pains and challenges.

Fred Rogers received his sweaters from his mother each Christmas. Every one of the twelve members of his family received a hand-knit sweater from his mother every year. His sweaters became such a symbol of the sweater-faith Fred Rogers embodied that the Smithsonian placed one of his sweaters in our country’s collection of national treasures. I want a sweater-faith. I want Fred Rogers sweater-faith about the ultimate value of humanity.

When reflecting on the meaning of love, Mr. Rogers said, “Love isn’t a state of perfect caring. It is an active noun, like ‘struggle.’ To love someone is to strive to accept that person exactly the way he or she is, right here and now.” That is sweater-faith.

When asked about liking people, he said, “When I say it’s you I like, I’m talking about that part of you that knows that life is far more than anything you can ever see or hear or touch. That deep part of you that allows you to stand for those things without which humankind cannot survive. Love that conquers hate, peace that rises triumphant over war, and justice that proves more powerful than greed.” That is sweater-faith.

I will continue to search for the reasons behind my beliefs, and I’ll update them when appropriate. I’ll do my best to leave my faith-armor in my trunk. I hope we can all remove our armor-faith. I hope we no longer have to hold onto beliefs so tightly that we can no longer hear the thoughts and experiences which lead others to develop their beliefs. In its place, I hope we can develop a sweater-faith, lightly worn—a faith that warms us and is a demonstration of love. And I hope that whatever faith we do develop, it will be knit from the yarn of kindness, Mr. Rogers’s yarn, which is so steeped in compassion and humanity. If we develop that kind of faith, we will be better people for it, and this will be a better community. So let’s take off our loafers and put on our sneakers. Let’s hang our jackets and don our sweater-faith, and say to our family and our friends, “I like you just the way you are.”