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Parashat Mishpatim

February 22, 2017

From Sanctity to Social Justice: The Message of Mishpatim

By Len Levin

“And these are the judicial rules that you shall set before them.” (Exodus 21:1)

Last week, God’s majesty was revealed in thunder and smoke, proclaiming the cardinal rules that express universal human morality. The rabbis declared that they were broadcast in seventy languages (Midrash Tanhuma), and history corroborates that they have been disseminated to the ends of the earth.

This week, the focus shifts to the prosaic and the particular: What are the rules for a slave’s manumission after six years of labor? If my ox gores your ox, how much compensation is due? If you borrow my animal and it dies, who bears the loss?

Judaism is famously a religion with a great emphasis on law. The word halakhah (from the verb, to walk) could have been translated “the way” (the Jewish Tao, if you will), but it denotes the detailed prescription of the law to a specific case. The word Torah (meaning “teaching” in the broadest sense) was translated into Greek as nomos. In his epistles to the Romans and Galatians, Paul contrasted the Jewish law with Christian grace and love. He implied that preoccupation with law connoted enslavement to the flesh, punctilious obsession with trivial detail, and self-defeating perfectionism.

On the contrary! It is part of Judaism’s core vision that abstract principles and exalted sentiments are of little consequence unless translated into the hard currency of daily living and social justice.

The 19th century Jewish philosopher Moritz Lazarus summed up this relation in the formula: “Sanctification is moralization, and moralization is brought about by means of lawfulness.” (Lazarus, The Ethics of Judaism, II, 45) By this he meant that the sanctity of God is expressed through universal ethical truth, and universal ethics is made concrete in the Torah through its detailed legislation, providing a blueprint for a just society. Finally, the blueprint has value only if we put it into practice: “Lawfulness, in turn, implies a mind directed towards the fulfillment of all laws, a constant willingness and the energetic will to act dutifully, in accordance with the standard of the law.”

Israel Salanter, who founded the Musar movement in Lithuania in the 1860s, said that one of the best ways to cultivate our moral personalities is through daily study of Hoshen Mishpat, the section of the Shulhan Arukh that summarizes the Talmudic civil law that derives from the laws in this week’s portion Mishpatim.

Finally, law itself cannot guarantee a just society unless it is reinforced by the moral commitment of all its citizens, motivated by the religious conviction that God cares and demands that we act ethically. As Heschel taught: “The divine commandments are not mere recommendations for man, but express divine concern, which, realized or repudiated, is of personal importance to Him.” (Heschel, The Prophets, 24) It is this fusion of social and religious values that informs especially the final injunctions of the code of Mishpatim:

  • If you mistreat [the widow and orphan] I will hear their outcry as soon as they cry out to Me. (22:22)
  • Return your neighbor’s pledged garment before sunset. It is his only clothing, the sole covering for his skin. If he cries out to Me, I will pay heed, for I am compassionate. (22:25-26)
  • You must not carry false rumors. Do not join hands with the guilty to act as a malicious witness. Do not side with the mighty to do wrong. (23:1-2)
  • When you see the ass of your enemy lying under its burden and would refrain from raising it, you must nevertheless raise it with him. (23:5)
  • You shall not subvert the rights of your needy in their disputes. (23:6)
  • Do not take bribes, for bribes blind the clear-sighted and upset the pleas of those who are in the right. (23:8)
  • You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt. (23:9)

What do all these injunctions have in common? They are all the measure of the moral health of a society. A society that observes these is a society informed by compassion, in which the spirit of justice breathes freely. Yet they are resistant to normal strategies of legal enforcement. They depend on the good will and moral commitment of all society’s members, individually and collectively, from the grass roots to the top. And this moral commitment is based on the conviction that social justice is God’s will.

The Torah fittingly places these injunctions in the context of the narrative of the covenant enacted between Israel and God. Last week, the covenantal narrative began with God promising, “If you listen to my voice and observe my covenant, you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (Ex. 19:5-6) This week, the covenant is ceremonially enacted, and the people declare: “All that the Lord has spoke, we will do and obey! (na’aseh venishma)” (24:7)


Rabbi Len Levin teaches Jewish philosophy at AJR.