Parashat Mishpatim, 5771, David Radwin

Parashat Mishpatim 

January 29, 2011 / 24 Sh'vat, 5771

David Radwin


Exodus 21:1 - 24:18

Shabbat Shalom!

This week’s parsha, Mishpatim, means “rules” or “laws,” and it is the first major installment of such regulations in the Torah. (The other day I asked Rabbi Creditor whether the singular of mishpatim was mishpat, and he said, yes, but how often does the Torah just give you one?)

Unlike the Ten Commandments in last week’s parsha, these are more numerous and more detailed, though often it is less than obvious how to observe the mishpatim in the modern world.

To wit, the first mishpat of the parsha is, “When you acquire a Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years; in the seventh he shall go free without payment.” [Shrug.]

Another is “He who insults his father or mother shall be put to death.” If any of my children are in the sanctuary right now - you might think this one over first, the next time you feel the urge to call me “Dumb-dumb head.”

I won’t repeat all the mishpatim, but the greatest hits list includes not boiling a kid in its mother’s milk, observing Shabbat as a day of rest, observing Pesach, not charging interest on loans, Shmita (the practice of letting agricultural land lay fallow every seventh year), and perhaps most notoriously, the widely misunderstood “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” principle. (I refer you the Chumash for a succinct explanation of the misunderstanding.)

 And this is just a fraction of the many, many mishpatim that govern all aspects our behavior. Not surprisingly, authorities over the years have tried to boil this long list down to a simple formulation.

For example, expanding on one of the mishpatim in this parsha, the Midrash (in Exodus Rabbah)  states, “A rich man who gives to charity and lends his money without interest is considered as one who observes all commandments.”

Or the famous story about Rabbi Hillel, who, when challenged to explain Judaism while standing on one leg, replied, “What is hateful to yourself, do not do to your neighbor. The rest is commentary - now go and study.” The prophet Micah has another such formulation.

Yet we cannot so easily condense or disregard all mishpatim, particularly because as Conservative/Masorti Jews our movement’s origin is so closely tied to the breach of a particular rule. In 1883, as many of you know, Hebrew Union College, the Reform seminary in Cincinnati and the first Jewish seminary of any kind in America, held a banquet to honor its first graduating class of ordained rabbis. The first course served was shrimp. Traditional Jews were appalled - so appalled that two years later, we’ve got the Jewish Theological Seminary and (ta-da) the Conservative movement.

This is hardly the most inspiring origin story: “The Conservative Movement: Brought to you by Shrimp.” Or perhaps: “Shrimp: The crustacean that launched a thousand shuls.” 

What I find remarkable, though, is that more than 100 years later, it still is observance of kashrut, along with certain dimensions of personal appearance and Shabbat observance, that seem to serve as the three most common yardsticks of Jewishness.

All too often, when we say someone is “very Jewish” or “more Jewish” than someone else, we are not referring to how that person does or doesn’t honor her parents or charge interest on loans. Rather, we are describing the extent to which this person keeps kosher, how his or her personal appearance is “Jewish” (perhaps wearing a kippah, or a particular type or color of kippah. or a wig, or so-called modest clothing, or arranging their hair in a particular way, or for men having a beard or peyot), or the ways in which the person observes Shabbat (like attending shul, or not driving, or not cooking, or not using electricity).

I have a few thoughts about why we tend to focus our judgments on kashrut, appearance, and Shabbat observance more than other mishpatim.

1. The first of which is that these rules are DISTINCTIVELY JEWISH. Most cultures and religions abhor murder, theft, and so on and have some injunction not to treat others poorly, but how many religions delve into such fine detail about diet, personal appearance, or behavior on a weekly day of rest?

2. Compliance with these rules is PUBLICLY OBSERVABLE - it’s much easier to discern someone’s diet, appearance, or Shabbat observance than whether they covet their neighbor’s possessions.

3. And these are FREQUENT OCCURRENCES. Every day you get dressed and eat three meals (or maybe more). Shabbat happens every week. In contrast, there are thick books of rules and customs on mourning one’s relatives, but these days, thank God, it is rare that we are called upon to observe these rules.

4. These three areas of mishpatim are NOT OBSELETE or virtually obsolete, like rules regarding the Temple, sacrifice, treatment of slaves, marrying your brother’s widow, or your ox goring someone. Of course, antiquated mishpatim can be and often are reinterpreted in modern terms - like contributing to a food bank as equivalent to not harvesting the corners of your field. But kashrut, appearance, and Shabbat observance are recognizable on their own.

5. Finally, they are NOT MUTUALLY EXCLUSIVE. Some mishpatim logically contradict other mitzvot. Louis Jacobs notes that the rule from this week’s parsha that a thief must make double restitution directly contradicts last week’s parsha’s rule against stealing. You can’t make restitution if you don’t steal anything. Likewise, the commandment to, in effect, drink yourself stupid at Purim is in tension with the principle of shmirat ha-guf or taking care of your body.

6. There are probably other reasons as well, which I invite you to discuss amongst yourselves during kiddush.

So, you may ask, what’s so wrong with this narrowly based yardstick of Jewishness?

The problem, in my opinion, is by emphasizing these three domains, we undermine the many other mishpatim, and I think this is a shame. 

Wouldn’t it be great if a little more often, we said or thought things like “Jon takes such good care of his parents - he’s so Jewish!” Wouldn’t it be nice if rather than berating ourselves by thinking, “I’m less observant than Jane, because I eat or dress or observe Shabbat differently,” we instead congratulated ourselves by recalling “Both Jane and I give generously to charity - what good Jews we are!”

To be sure, there are countervailing forces that are trying to raise the prominence of these overlooked Jewish values. One way is by expanding the boundaries of one Jewish precept to encompass other precepts as well. For example, the new Magen Tzedek (which means seal of righteousness) initiative certifies that food not only is kosher in the traditional dietary sense but also that it is produced in a way that does not exploit employees or the environment and that treats animals humanely throughout their lives and not just at the point of slaughter. The concept of eco-kashrut shares some of these goals.

Another specific effort, which takes place right here at Netivot Shalom, is the Middot initiative. Each month a selected middah, which is a value or trait derived from Jewish teachings, is emphasized in various shul programs. Examples include hachnasat orchim (welcoming guests), shmiat ha-ozen (being a good listener), and shmirat ha-lashon (guarding your tongue). Perhaps you have seen the fliers as you enter the building. These middot expand our attention to Jewish rules and customs beyond the usual three benchmarks of Jewishness.

In pointing out how prominently kashrut, personal appearance, and Shabbat observance figure into our thinking about what makes us Jewish, I do not mean to suggest that we abandon or in any way discount these three critically important domains. After all, we all know what can happen when you serve shrimp for dinner.

Instead, I urge all of us to broaden our focus and to appreciate the many ways we and our fellow Jews fulfill all the many misphatim that touch all aspects of our lives - the mishpatim that, as Jews, we are obligated to follow.

Thank you and Shabbat Shalom.