Mishpatim - 29th Shevat 5767
On the opening phrase of Mishpatim - "And these are the laws you are to set before them" - Rashi comments: "And these are the laws" -- Wherever uses the word "these" it signals a discontinuity with what has been stated previously. Wherever it uses the term "and these" it signals a continuity. just as the former commands were given at Sinai, so these were given at Sinai. Why then are the civil laws placed in juxtaposition to the laws concerning the altar ? To tell you to place the Sanhedrin near to the Temple. "Which you shall set before them" - G-d said to Moses: You should not think, I will teach them a section or law two or three times until they know the words verbatim but I will not take the trouble to make them understand the reason and its significance. Therefore the Torah states "which you shall set before them" like a fully laid table with everything ready for eating. (Rashi on Shemot 23:1)
Three remarkable propositions are being set out here, which have shaped the contours of Judaism ever since.
The first is that just as the general principles of Judaism (aseret hadibrot means not "ten commandments" but "ten utterances" or overarching principles) are Divine, so are the details. In the 1960s the Danish architect Arne Jacobson designed a new college campus in Oxford. Not content with designing the building, he went on to design the cutlery and crockery to be used in the dining hall, and supervised the planting of every shrub in the college garden. When asked why, he replied in the words of another architect, Mies van der Rohe: "G-d is in the details".
That is a Jewish sentiment. There are those who believe that what is holy in Judaism is its broad vision, never so compellingly expressed as in the Decalogue at Sinai. The truth however is that G-d is in the details: "Just as the former were given at Sinai, so these were given at Sinai." The greatness of Judaism is not simply in its noble vision of a free, just and compassionate society, but in the way it brings this vision down to earth in detailed legislation. Freedom is more than an abstract idea. It means (in an age in which slavery was taken for granted - it was not abolished in Britain or the United States until the nineteenth century) letting a slave go free after seven years, or immediately if his master has injured him. It means granting slaves complete rest and freedom one day in seven. These laws do not abolish slavery, but they do create the conditions under which people will eventually learn to abolish it. Not less importantly, they turn slavery from an existential fate to a temporary condition. Slavery is not what you are or how you were born, but some thing that has happened to you for a while and from which you will one day be liberated. That is what these laws - especially the law of Shabbat - achieve, not in theory only, but in living practice. In this, as in virtually every other aspect of Judaism, G-d is in the details.
The second principle, no less fundamental, is that civil law is not secular law. We do not believe in the idea "render to Caesar what is Caeser's and to G-d what belongs to G-d". We believe in the separation of powers but not in the secularisation of law or the spiritualisation of faith. The Sanhedrin or Supreme Court must be placed near the Temple to teach that law itself must be driven by a religious vision. The greatest of these visions, stated in this week's sedra, is: "Do not oppress a stranger, because you yourself know how it feels like to be a stranger: you were strangers in Egypt." (Shemot 23:9)
The Jewish vision of justice, given its detailed articulation here for the first time, is based not on expediency or pragmatism, nor even on abstract philosophical principles, but on the concrete historical memories of the Jewish people as "one nation under G-d." Centuries earlier, G-d has chosen Abraham so that he would "teach his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord, by doing what is right and just." (Bereishith 18:19) Justice in Judaism flows from the experience of injustice at the hands of the Egyptians, and the G-d-given challenge to create a radically different form of society in Israel.
This is already foreshadowed in the first chapter of the Torah with its statement of the equal and absolute dignity of the human person as the image of G-d. That is why society must be based on the rule of law, impartially administered, treating all alike - "Do not follow the crowd in doing wrong. When you give testimony in a lawsuit, do not pervert justice by siding with the crowd, and do not show favouritism to a poor man in his lawsuit." (Shemot 23:2-3)
To be sure, at the highest levels of mysticism, G-d is to be found in the innermost depths of the human soul, but G-d is equally to be found in the public square and in the structures of society: the marketplace, the corridors of power, and courts of law. There must be no gap, no dissociation of sensibilities, between the court of justice (the meeting-place of man and man) and the Temple (the meeting-place of man and G-d).
The third principle and the most remarkable of all is the idea that law does not belong to lawyers. It is the heritage of every Jew. "Do not think, I will teach them a section or law two or three times until they know the words verbatim but I will not take the trouble to make them understand the reason and significance of the law. The Torah states 'which you shall set before them' like a fully laid table with everything ready for eating." This is the origin of the name of the most famous of all Jewish codes of law, R. Joseph Karo's Shulkhan Arukh.
From earliest times, Judaism expected everyone to know and understand the law. Legal knowledge is not the closely guarded property of an elite. It is - in the famous phrase - "the heritage of the congregation of Jacob." (Devarim 33:4) Already in the first century CE Josephus could write that "should any one of our nation be asked about our laws, he will repeat them as readily as his own name. The result of our thorough education in our laws from the very dawn of intelligence is that they are, as it were, engraved on our souls. Hence to break them is rare, and no one can evade punishment by the excuse of ignorance" (Contra Apionem, ii, 177-8). That is why there are so many Jewish lawyers. Judaism is a religion of law - not because it does not believe in love ("You shall love the Lord your G-d", "You shall love your neighbour as yourself") but because, without justice, neither love nor liberty nor human life itself can flourish. Love alone does not free a slave from his or her chains.
The sedra of Mishpatim, with its detailed rules and regulations, can sometimes seem a let-down after the breathtaking grandeur of the revelation at Sinai. It should not be. Yitro contains the vision, but G-d is in the details. Without the vision, law is blind. But without the details, the vision floats in heaven. With them the divine presence is brought down to earth, where we need it most.
Three People - One Change
Was I right or wrong to see in this story something out of the ordinary? Only later did I discover that three other people, none of them Jews, had shared my own sense of amazement and had been persuaded by it that somewhere in the tale of Jewish survival was a mystery of great significance. Each of them for different reasons, had been led to reflect on the nature of history. Each had been startled into a discovery that there was one people whose history broke all the rules.
The first was Blaise Pascal, a mathematician and physicist in the seventeenth century who invented the first digital calculator and the syringe, and discovered Pascal’s law of pressure and the principle of the hydraulic press. More significantly he was the founder of the modern theory of probability. At the age of thirty he abruptly ended his scientific work and devoted the rest of his life to thinking about religious faith. His theoretical reflections led him to formulate what has come to be known as “Pascal’s wager”, the idea that under conditions of uncertainty we have more to lose by disbelieving than believing in G-d. However, Pascal also applied the idea of probability to history and came to a striking conclusion: that among all the myriad peoples that have lived on earth, only one defies probability:
It is certain that in certain parts of the world we can see a peculiar people, separated from the other peoples of the world, and this is called the Jewish people … This people is not only of remarkable antiquity but has also lasted for a singularly long time …For whereas the peoples of Greece and Italy, Sparta, Athens and Rome, and others who came so much later have perished so long ago, there still exist, despite the efforts of so many powerful kings who have tried a hundred times to wipe them out, as their historians testify, and as can easily be judged by the natural order of things over such a long spell of years. They have always been preserved, however, and their preservation was foretold … My encounter with this people amazes me…
In War and Peace Leo Tolstoy also wrestled with the question of the meaning of history. Is the course of events determined by the decisions of great leaders and military commanders? Or is there some deeper underlying thread of meaning, a destiny whose outline can be discerned beneath the surface of apparently random happenings? Critics have often been irritated by Tolstoy’s philosophizing, which cut across the vivid drama of the novel, the fate of five aristocratic families set against the panoramic background of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. Yet Tolstoy was driven by a conviction that there is a moral and spiritual dimension to history, and this idea left him no peace. At the height of his career, having completed Anna Karenina, he abandoned his life as an aristocrat and started living the life of a peasant, devoted to faith, love and the virtues of simplicity. One of the things that, for him, proved the existence of a mysterious and providential pattern in history was the story of the Jews:
He whom neither slaughter nor torture of thousands of years could destroy, he whom neither fire nor sword nor inquisition was able to wipe off the face of the earth, he who was the first to produce the oracles of G-d, he who has been for so long the guardian of prophecy, and who has transmitted it to the rest of the world – such a nation cannot be destroyed. The Jew is as everlasting as eternity itself.
The third figure, Nicolay Berdyayev, was one of the great thinkers of the Russian revolution. The destiny of civilization, he believed, was ruled by material forces, economies, wars, the physical indices of power. Something happened, though, to make him change his mind. In his study of history he came across one people whose fate could not be accounted for in these terms – the Jewish people. Their existence and survival was a refutation of Marxist theory. This discovery changed Berdyayev’s life. He became religious. He no longer believed in materialism but instead in the “light which breaks through from the transcendent world of the spirit”. Eventually, he was expelled from Russia and spent the rest of his life in Berlin and Paris, teaching religion. In The Meaning of History, he tells how he made his discovery:
I remember how the materialist interpretation of history, when I attempted in my youth to verify it by applying it to the destinies of peoples, broke down in the case of the Jews, where destiny seemed absolutely inexplicable from the materialistic standpoint . . . Its survival is a mysterious and wonderful phenomenon demonstrating that the life of this people is governed by a special predetermination, transcending the process of adaptation expounded by the materialistic interpretation of history. The survival of the Jews, their resistance to destruction, their endurance under absolutely peculiar conditions and the fateful role played by them in history: al these point to the particular and mysterious foundations of their destiny.
Here were three people whose lives were changed by their encounter with the Jewish story. Judaism confirmed their own religious faith and suggested to them the important idea that G-d might be found not only in nature but in history. And if we search for revelation in history, we will find it, more compelling than anywhere else, in the history of that unusual people, our ancestors. For almost two thousand years Jews remained a distinctive nation without any of the usual prerequisites of nationhood. They had no land, no sovereignty, no power, no overarching political structures, not even a shared culture. They were scattered over the face of the earth and almost everywhere they were a minority. For the most part, they refused active efforts to convert them and resisted the passive pull of assimilation. No other people kept its identity intact for so long in such circumstances.
And so I came back to the question that had perplexed me in my student days, and five centuries earlier had troubled Rabbi Isaac Arama. I was heir to this history. But what claim did it lay on me? In what sense did it represent my own identity, not as a fact but as a value, not as the story of a past but as a duty to the future? How does where I come from tell me who I am called on to be?
(From “Radical Then, Radical Now” Published by continuum 2003 - Pages 33-37)