Who’s in charge here?

by | Feb 6, 2015 | Torah Thought

Sez who?

Sez God, that’s who.

That pretty well sums up parshat Mishpatim, the extensive list of laws we read this Shabbat, many of which flesh out instructions that were delivered in the Ten Commandments, the culmination of the previous Torah portion. For example, if the commandment “You shall not murder” isn’t detailed enough for you, parshat Mishpatim goes into detail about how intentional murder and its punishment differ from the more accidental manslaughter. If you don’t find the mandate to honor your mother and father compelling, Exodus 21:17 puts teeth in the punishment for the opposite: “He who curses/treats with contempt his father or his mother shall be put to death.”

In fact, Mishpatim lays out several capital offenses and includes other laws that don’t sit particularly well with a modern, Western sensibility. Instructions that relate to people as slaves, daughters as chattel, and, seemingly, justice as revenge (“eye for eye, tooth for tooth,” Exodus 21:24) fall harshly on North American ears. And because these laws come directly from God, many Jews (and even more Christians) come to think of God as cold and micromanaging, an unloving control freak. And it only gets worse from here, because it’s at parshat Mishpatim that the Torah shifts from almost all narrative to mostly lists of instructions and rules, with occasional narrative breaks.

So what’s the point of all these laws? The off-putting nature of many of these laws, even some that makes good ethical sense, underscores how important it is to study Torah, not just hear it or read it. Only when you dig beneath the crust of the text do you start to understand the historical context of the laws, the idea that no matter how antiquated they seem to us now, many mandates in Torah represent real progress from attitudes of other ancient Near Eastern societies. Also, when we study, we learn about what subsequent rabbis and scholars had to say about these laws, and we begin to understand not only that Torah is open to interpretation—it’s much more than the letters in the scroll—but that Judaism has been changing constantly since the Torah was first put on parchment.

Sometimes the evolution is toward specificity and restriction, such as the injunction “You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk” (Exodus 23:19) morphing into the separation of meat and dairy under the laws of kashrut. But other times, the rabbis of the early Common Era took pains to mitigate the harsh language of the Torah, insisting, for example, that the penalties of “eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot” were not to be taken literally as physical punishments, but called for financial compensation of the injured party. Once you establish that Jewish law is open to interpretation, you’re free to adapt it to contemporary society. But with that freedom comes responsibility. If a religious law runs counter to your values and you don’t study it, you may have the power to ignore it, but you don’t have a real voice in its evolution.

Study also helps us understand why God’s role in handing out these laws has to be absolute. Moses was a courageous leader of the Israelites, but in many ways he was unprepared to be the top executive for many thousands of people. (We see this in the previous Torah reading, when Moses’ father-in-law, Yitro, teaches him how to delegate responsibility.) Moses needs God to call the shots, not only because Moses doesn’t have the chops for it yet, but because Moses himself comes from a culture in which Godliness and humanness are mutually exclusive, and the God of the Israelites wants to establish an ethos in which humans, created in God’s image, contain the presence of God. Text study helps us get to a place where we can see how the laws of Mishpatim contribute to a just and orderly society—and an individual’s Godliness.

—Rabbi Ellen Jaffe-Gill, Tidewater Chavurah