Exodus 21:1 – 24:18
This Torah portion, fittingly named “Mishpatim – Judgments”, has, by traditional count, over 50 mitzvot – more than the total number of commandments that have been given in the entre Torah so far. It reflects the turn of the Torah from story book to a law book. Yet, the collection of laws included in this portion raises questions about the “judgment” used by the Torah in promulgating and assembling them here. The collection is varied, with the bulk of the laws concerning civil matters, questions that have very little to do with specifically Jewish concerns. There is very little ritual law discussed.
A fertile area of research for modern scholars has been to compare these civil laws with the laws of the surrounding civilizations. The Code of Hammurabi has been shown to bear striking similarities to many of the rules in our parashah. Others have tried to show that there are meaningful changes made in the Torah’s rules, moving them in a more just direction. All of this raises basic questions – what is the difference between Jewish law and other systems of law? What is the relationship between the human and the divine in these laws? What is the relation between ancient, historic artifacts and eternal, sacred teachings
This problem is brought into sharp relief when we consider the first set of laws in our reading. They deal with the institution of slavery. While the laws considerably mitigate the harshness of the Hammurabi approach, they nevertheless accept slavery as a legitimate social reality. How could this be the instruction of a God Who has just spent so much effort miraculously liberating the Israelites from slavery? A God Who has chosen to begin the Ten Commandments by being identified as the One Who took us out of the “house of slaves”
Some deduce from this that these laws are nothing more that old rules created by human beings. In this view the Torah’s acceptance of slavery is an archaic position that we have thankfully and rightfully transcended. But the problem with such a view is that, once this part of the Torah is seen as a purely time-bound document of purely human invention, it is hard not to extend this evaluation to the Torah as a whole. Maybe the whole Torah is outdated and passé. Maybe we have transcended the Torah altogether. Many believe this. Some reject this view. But every serious Jew has struggled with this problem in modern times.
Let us focus on the dissonance between the Torah’s celebration of our liberation from slavery and its matter of fact treatment of slavery as an ongoing institution. I think it is possible to argue that this dissonance is not created by our own more modern antipathy to slavery. We should not be so quick to assume the opposition to slavery as a given. Indeed, slavery is still accepted in too many parts of the world, including this country, to this very day.
Rather, perhaps we can see the Torah itself as the creator of this dissonance. The laws of this Torah portion are problematic because we read them in the light of the previous stories of the Exodus and of Mount Sinai. Without the story of our liberation from bondage there would have been no pressure to mitigate it or abolish it. Perhaps the Torah is not simply an old beat-up product of history. Perhaps it is the Torah which has liberated us, in fits and starts, with much effort and frequent failures, and with more work still to be done, from the amoral morass of history.
Rabbi David Greenstein
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