וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם וַעֲשִֹיתֶם כִּי הִוא חָכְמַתְכֶם וּבִינַתְכֶם לְעֵינֵי הָעַמִּים אֲשֶׁר יִשְׁמְעוּן אֵת כָּל-הַחֻקִּים הָאֵלֶּה וְאָמְרוּ רַק עַם-חָכָם וְנָבוֹן הַגּוֹי הַגָּדוֹל הַזֶּה: כִּי מִי-גוֹי גָּדוֹל אֲשֶׁר-לוֹ אֱ-לֹהִים קְרֹבִים אֵלָיו כַּה' אֱ-לֹהֵינוּ בְּכָל-קָרְאֵנוּ אֵלָיו: וּמִי גּוֹי גָּדוֹל אֲשֶׁר-לוֹ חֻקִּים וּמִשְׁפָּטִים צַדִּיקִם כְּכֹל הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי נֹתֵן לִפְנֵיכֶם הַיּוֹם
Keep therefore and do them; for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the nations, which shall hear all these statutes, and say, surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people. For what nation is there so great, who hath God so nigh unto them, as the Lord our God is in all things that we call upon him for? And what nation is there so great, that hath statutes and judgments so righteous as all this law, which I set before you this day?
In its simplest reading, this passage (Deuteronomy 4:6-8) states that knowledge of the mitzvot will naturally elicit admiration for Israel from the nations. It thus presumes that the commandments have a universal, even self-evident, quality. It is as if to say: When it comes to the Torah, what’s not to like?
But, in reality, the idea that the world can easily identify with our laws is not at all obvious. In fact, we have been taught from an early age that the moral barriers between Israel and the nations are too high to overcome. When God offered the Torah to each of Israel’s neighbors, as we know from the oft-repeated midrash, they rejected it as fundamentally incompatible with their core beliefs and practices.
This latter view may have led some of the Sages to minimize the scope of the verses above. For example, Rabbi Shmuel (Shabbat 75a) attributes the “wisdom and understanding” of this passage to one particular aspect of the law, astronomical/calendrical calculation. Such wisdom is undeniably universal:
אמר רבי שמואל בר נחמני אמר רבי יוחנן: מנין שמצוה על האדם לחשב תקופות ומזלות? ־ שנאמר (דברים ד) ושמרתם ועשיתם כי היא חכמתכם ובינתכם לעיני העמים. איזו חכמה ובינה שהיא לעיני העמים? ־ הוי אומר זה חישוב תקופות ומזלות
Mastery of astronomy -- an empirical, objective science -- will surely impress the nations. But particularistic laws, such as Shabbat and kashrut, could never achieve the same result.
The Rambam, on the other hand, has a maximalist reading of these verses. He cites them in the Guide of the Perplexed (III:31) within an impassioned argument for the existence of intelligible reasons for all the mitzvot, including the hukkim. After all, he says, the hukkim are singled out in this passage:
. . . The sole object of the Law is to benefit us. Thus we explained the Scriptural passage, "for our good always, that He might preserve us alive, as it is this day" (Deut. 6:24). Again, "which shall hear all those statutes (hukkim), and say, surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people" (ibid. 4:6). He thus says that even every one of these "statutes" convinces all nations of the wisdom and understanding it includes. But if no reason could be found for these statutes, if they produced no advantage and removed no evil, why then should he who believes in them and follows them be wise, reasonable, and so excellent as to raise the admiration of all nations? But the truth is undoubtedly as we have said, that every one of the six hundred and thirteen precepts serves to inculcate some truth, to remove some erroneous opinion, to establish proper relations in society, to diminish evil, to train in good manners or to warn against bad habits.
This view suits a medieval rationalist such as Maimonides, with his full confidence in the rational basis of the mitzvot. Since the ta’am of every mitzva is based on some universally accepted good, it is only natural that the mitzvot display “wisdom and understanding” that can be universally acknowledged.
It is interesting to contrast this view with that of the Netziv (R. Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, Ha'amek Davar, Deut. 4:6). Like the amora R. Shmuel, he too narrows the subject of these verses, but in a different way. For the Netziv, they refer to the Oral Law, i.e., the Talmud. The Oral rather than the Written Law, he says, will one day be seen as the defining achievement of the Jewish people in the eyes of the world, as the logic and methodology of the Oral Law -- this, according to the Netziv, is how one should interpret the word hukkim -- are clearly the product of Israel’s “wisdom and understanding.” The ever-expanding Talmud, even more than the written Torah, will bring honor to the Jewish people:
As you continuously add to the abundance of the (Oral) Law, over and above the Written Law, the nations of the world will be amazed (to discover) how expansive and exalted is (the Oral Law), due to the wisdom and understanding of Israel.