Home » Philosophical » Mishpatim


16 February 2007

For those who haven’t been following the great journey which is Joshua’s conversion to Judaism, one of the activities in which I’ve been participating is a weekly Torah study class, in which we read a portion of the Torah every week, and by the time the year is through, we’ve covered the entire scroll and it all starts over again. As a quick point of education for the non-Jew, this reading of the weekly ‘Parashah’ is a deep part of the tradition. The Torah is consumed in bite-sized chunks in this way, and (hopefully) special detail is given to coming to find and understand the wisdom found in the passage, echoed in other related readings (the Haftorah), in the Mishnah, and the Talmud. Frankly, growing up as a Christian, I can’t remember EVER giving any portion of the bible this level of careful exegesis — not that it isn’t possible, or that it doesn’t happen; its’ just *I* never did it. Frankly, I do believe it’s probably pretty rare except in the most liberal and/or academic of settings, as most Christians that I know view the ‘Old Testament’ as a quaint historical record of what came to pass before the really important event of the birth, life and death of Christ. Whatever hard-to-understand, strange or incongruous passages might exist are looked over with a patronizing eye of ‘oh look how quaint, this is what the Jews used to believe — good thing we don’t have to worry about any of that anymore with the ‘new Covenant’ ‘. However, to the Jewish people, the Torah is still the central text, and the source of ethical and spiritual instruction. What’s particularly interesting is, where a fundamentalist Christian might read the old testament with a literal eye to be taken at face value, even the most ultra-orthodox of Jews does not take the Torah at face value, but only through the lens of the other texts in their tradition, and through the wisdom of the rabbis.

Which brings us to Mishpatim.

Mishpatim, which means ‘Ordinances’ as a rough translation, is one of the sections of the Torah that lays out a whole host of laws and rules of conduct in the minutiae. Following on the tails of Yitro, the parashah in which the Hebrew people receive the famous ten commandments, Mishpatim is really a continuance of the utterance of God (oh my, I’m using that word again with a capital ‘G’ — that’s freaky) on the rules and basic conduct that constitute the terms of the covenant with Hashem (which is a name proxy for God — it literally means ‘The Name’, and is a safe way to speak of God with out uttering his name. More on that whole thing in future posts, I’m sure 🙂 ).

Okay, cool, let’s get into it, right? Well… these laws are pretty much severely outdated, as they refer to how you are to treat your slaves, how to pay restitution for taking a man’s daughter’s maidenhead without marrying her, what to do if your ox gores another man’s ox, etc. etc. While progressive for the time, what does all of this hubbub offer the modern Jew for inspiration and relevance? You can really start to take the Christian perspective here — it does seem quaint and irrelevant, doesn’t it? Especially in the light of the fact that it explicitly sanctions slavery, and lays out the terms for capital punishment (did you know that speaking ill of your parents was a capital offense?! Watch out!) The famous ‘eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth’ phrase comes out of this passage (though if you damage your slave and he loses an eye, he goes free). So, what is a liberal-minded reader supposed to do with all of this information? How does this help guide my life today and in what way should it inspire me?

Well first off, let’s talk about the Talmud and the Rabbi’s again — Judaism has religiously sanctioned and encouraged interpretation and debate over the meaning of all of these passages, with a firm intent on keeping it relevant. Even the writers of the Talmud knew not to take that ‘eye for an eye’ business literally — they declared it to mean if someone pokes out your eye, they have to pay restitutions in value of the eye. So, yes, read the Torah, but please don’t take it literally — there’s so much more to read to get it. Kinda like Kant — without the secondary sources, you’re lost.

Second, what *is* particularly interesting about this passage is that there is an unprecedented move that’s happening in social organization. Up until this point, the peoples of the world have been ruled by kings and dictators, whose word is law, and is changed at their own whim. How just the society was depended solely on how just the current ruler is, and there was no guarantee of justice from one monarch to the next. ‘And then came a pharoah that did not know Joseph’. For the first time, we get a system based on the rule of laws being the final arbiter. In this passage it’s made clear that for the most grievous offenses, you’re to take a person from the very altar of god and bring them before the people for capital punishment. What this means is, not even the high priest is exempt from following the letter of the law. Wow. No ruler is above the law. This is ground-shaking, and changes the direction of human history. Okay, yes, yes, the historians are going to tell me that there were other systems of laws being put forth just like this system in other cultures. However, those systems of laws were not grounded in a religious covenant with the gods, even if they were said to be transmitted from the gods. Hammurabi’s code was given to him by his gods, but they were not a condition of his relationship with those gods. In fact, the whole idea of a binding contractual relationship between mortal and divinity was brand new. These were the rules you had to play by if you were to be part of the community.

Thirdly, this section lays out the establishment of the higher and lower courts, of the importance of trials and adjudication. Actually, the higher and lower courts are first mention in Yitro, the previous passage, but they are detailed a bit more in Mishpatim. All cases of legal infraction had to be brought before some sort of judge for not only determining guilt or innocence, but for the meting out of punishment or restitution, in accordnace with the terms laid down in the laws, which often allowed for flexibility on the part of the judge.

Hmm… is any of this starting to sound a little familiar? Well, if you know you American history, it should. It’s a common misconception that the American legal and judicial system is based on Roman practice, but it more closely resembles a secularized version of the judicial system being proposed right here in Torah. (Lawyers and legal wonks — no, you don’t have to point out to me that American law is based on common law, which is an English invention, but the English Puritans, who helped craft and create the modern common law in response to abuses of monarchy used the bible as inspiration). In any case, whether the source or merely an echo of American values, this is something that I can get behind. If you substitute one document (the Constitution) for another (the Torah), and you subsitute one legislative body (Congress) for another (Rabbis), the similarities really start to stand out. And this is all over three thousand years old, I find that to be pretty inspired.

Personally, I’m interested to start studying Talmud as soon as I can, to start getting the complete picture on Halakha, whether or not it’s really still relevant in whole or in part today. What I find interesting in the ordinances is that there is a dual purpose of positive proscribed actions created to make a better society and world, and to spiritualize the actions of life, and the negatively prohibited actions cited in order to help control society’s impulses as well as setting the Jewish people apart again in order to spiritualize and sanctify everyday life, and to draw distinction, in turn tightening identity and community.

While I’m never likely to own a slave, or have to worry about my ox goring another man’s ox, what I can take from these passages is a tradition that stretches back thousands of years that is dedicated to justice and equanimity, as well as mercy and compassion. While the situations may have changed, the underlying motivational values have not. The ancients needed a set of common laws drawn up to help them learn the difference between wrong and right, and to hold them accountable in the case of transgression. In today’s world, most of us in the western cultures have for the most part internalized a good deal of this proscribed ethical behavior, but we still have our needs for laws, courts, judges and process. We’re far from perfect, and it’s not enough for us to hold the will of god in our hearts through some sort of penance and transformative experience. Sorry, Christians — I don’t mean to rip on you, but I don’t trust your best intentions, no matter how much you love Christ and your fellow human. We need to have rules and legal process in order to hold us accountable, and hopefully the internalization of those rules give us insight into compassion and love for one another as the Christians desire. It’s the chicken-egg story, and I’m a believer that the chicken of laws has to come before the laying of the egg of right action. The Covenant, which was said by the early Christian thinkers to have be wiped clean and made irrelevant by the death and resurrection of Christ, and by his teachings of brotherly love and passivity, is really the set of behaviors that a fully spiritually connected Christian wired to the godhead is supposed to perform instinctively. By true Christian theology, It’s not that the laws don’t matter anymore, but that you don’t have to be told them anymore because your heart guides you.

How many fully actualized Christians do you know, or can name historically? I think that Jesus is probably the only one. For the rest of us, we need teaching and laws to help us become better people. We internalize right action little by little, and we decide what right action means on a personal level in a dialectic conversation with the rules we agree to follow.

Anyhow, that’s enough of my rant for now. It’s late, and I need sleep. I know I’ve forgotten a few somethings in this diatribe, but the time for my brain to write and work properly is long past over.

Shabbat Shalom

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