Mishpatim: The Code of Law that structures Human Rights in its very bones, or Justice and Judges must uphold the moral imperative.

Mishpatim 2022

Parashat Mishpatim continues the process begun at Sinai, explicating and evolving the laws that will govern this nascent Israelite society. It begins with the laws that govern the indentured Israelite servants, and then moves on to the laws of damages- beginning with the person who either intentionally or unintenionally causes damage, and then dealing with the damage that is caused indirectly or by the property of people. The parasha then continues into other areas.

On first reading, it seems as if the laws contain a jumble of different areas and contexts with little logical order. Rabbi Elchanan Samet however has a different view: “Our question about the organization of the parasha of damages is based on the assumption that the order should follow the categories of the agents which CAUSE damage. Such a categorization is appropriate from a legal perspective, since one’s level of responsibility for the damage determines whether and how much restitution he much pay.  Our questions, however, disappear when we realize that the Torah orders this section based on the categories of those who are DAMAGED, not those who CAUSE damage”.

(https://etzion.org.il/en/tanakh/torah/sefer-shemot/parashat-mishpatim/mishpatim-laws-damages-declaration-human-rights)

In other words, the Torah has an organising principle here not just of legal categories, but of societal values. It begins with the value of human and then animal life, moves onto plant life and the sustaining ability of agriculture for society, and only then moves to general property or to money.  By using this principle, we are reminded powerfully that all human life and wellbeing, )closely followed by animal life and well being) is de facto more important to sustain and to protect than property or wealth.

On this organising principle, Judaism builds an edifice of understanding and provides a moral compass for us and for all of society. One cannot claim for example that the poor deserve less than the rich, that refugees have fewer rights to security than those comfortably living in the land, or that the rights of animals to life and welfare can be negotiated (or worse) for monetary profit.

Mishpatim has often been described as a foundational text for our society, a text which creates an environment built on laws that are applicable to everyone, that have authority, that addresses a broad variety of human experiences. The view that the organising principle is not only the legal sysem regulating human action but actually the moral imperative to be particularly concerned about supporting the wronged person and getting justice for them is mind blowing.  We generally focus on the idea that it is clearly built on earlier codes, such as that of Hammurabi, and examine the differences between the two codes of law, but to change focus and look at how the code is structured to prioritise people’s humanity and well being, the care for all living creatures and for nature BEFORE considering the care for material wealth and possessions is to understand the biblical imperative to care for the world and its inhabitants even at the cost of any accumulation of wealth or other material power.

We cannot of course ignore the fact that the legal code is critical to keeping the moral code properly focused and working. It is law – good law that is made to help people rather than to oppress or constrain people – that keeps society safe. The very word “mishpatim” means “laws”, and it requires people who apply wisdom and compassion to interpret and wield these laws.

I have been thinking a great deal recently about my grandfather, Walter Fritz Louis Rothschild, whose career as a judge faltered and ultimately came to an end with the rise of the Nazis in Germany. We have a newspaper where the following is reported on 21st January 1933 under the heading “A Public Scandal” :

“Offener Brief an den Reichsjustizminister.

Wir berichteten bereits in unsere gestrigen Ausgabe über den öffentlichen Skandal am hiesigen Amtsgericht.  Der Führer der SA-Obergruppe 2, Lutze, hat jetzt folgenden offenen Brief an den Reichsjustizminister gerichtet:

Ein Einzelfall, der in der Bevölkerung Hannovers berechtigte Entrüstung und Empörung ausgelöst hat, gibt mir Veranlassung, mich an Sie zu wenden und ein Problem zur Sprache zu bringen, das dringend und umgehend der Bereinigung bedarf.

               Der Vorgang ist folgender:           Das Amtsgericht Hannover hat es für zweckmäßig befunden, in einer politischen Strafsache, die am Mittwoch, dem 18. Januar 1933 vor dem hiesigen Amtsgericht anstand, in einem Verfahren gegen 2 SA-Männer den jüdischen Amtsgerichtsrat Dr. Rothschild als Vorsitzenden herauszustellen.

               Die Vernehmung der Beklagten erfolgte von Seiten des Dr. Rothschilds in überaus provokatorischer und unsachlicher Form.

   Der Verteidiger der Angeklagten bezweifelte daraufhin die Unbefangenheit des jüdischen Vorsitzenden und wird von diesem in einer Art und Weise behandelt, die weit über das Maß des Erträglichen und Erlaubten hinausgeht. Das Gericht zieht sich zur Beratung zurück und erklärt dann den Antrag des Verteidigers als gegenstandslos.

               Herr Reichsjustizminister! Es dürfte auch Ihnen nicht entgangen sein, daß das deutsche Volk, soweit es die nat.-soz. Weltanschauung vertritt – und das sind rund 40 Prozent der Gesamtbevölkerung Deutschlands – die jüdischen Fesseln abzustreifen sich anschickt.

               Wir verbitten es uns, daß man Vollblut- und Halbblutjuden als Richter über deutsche Menschen einsetzt. Wir fordern, daß der verantwortliche Amtsgerichtsdirektor, der für den obengenannten Vorgang  die Verantwortung trägt, zur Rechenschaft gezogen wird.

               Ich hoffe, daß Sie diesem Appell in letzter Stunde die gebührende Beachtung schenken, ehe es an den Gerichten zu Auftritten kommt, die eine autoritäre Rechtspflege überhaupt in Frage stellen.

               Zu Ihrer Orientierung diene Ihnen, daß sich die hannoverschen Gerichte durch Herausstellung jüdischen Justizpersonals besonders hervortun. Ich nenne u.a. :

               1. den ersten Staatsanwalt Wolfssohn,

               2. die Richterin Alice Rosenfeld,

               3. den Amtsgerichtsrat Rothschild,

und empfehle Ihnen, die Genannten schnellstens in der Versenkung verschwinden zu lassen.

Der Führer der SA-Obergruppe II, gez. Lutze, M.d..R.”  [i.e. Mitglied des Reichstages.]

“Open letter to the Reich Minister of Justice.

We already reported in yesterday’s issue about the public scandal at the local district court.   The leader of SA-Obergruppe 2, Lutze, has now addressed the following open letter to the Reich Minister of Justice:

An individual case which has caused justified indignation and outrage among the people of Hanover has given me cause to address you and to raise a problem which urgently and immediately needs clearing up.

               The process is as follows:

               The District Court of Hanover has found it expedient to single out the Jewish District Court Councillor Dr. Rothschild as the presiding judge in a political criminal case which was pending before the District Court here on Wednesday, January 18, 1933, in proceedings against 2 SA men.

               The questioning of the defendants was carried out by Dr. Rothschild in an extremely provocative and unobjective manner.

   The defendants’ defence counsel then doubted the impartiality of the Jewish chairman and was treated by him in a manner that went far beyond what was tolerable and permissible. The court retires for deliberation and then declares the motion of the defence counsel to be without object.

               Mr. Minister of Justice! It should not have escaped your notice that the German people, in so far as they represent the National-Socialist worldview – and that is about 40 percent of the total population of Germany – are preparing to throw off the Jewish shackles.

               We forbid the use of full-blooded and half-blooded Jews as judges over German people. We demand that the director of the district court, who is responsible for the above-mentioned incident, be brought to justice.

               I hope that you will give this appeal the attention it deserves at the last hour, before there are any appearances in the courts that call the authoritarian administration of justice into question at all.

               For your orientation, please note that the Hanoverian courts are particularly prominent in singling out Jewish judicial personnel. I mention, among others:

               1. the first public prosecutor Wolfssohn,

               2. Judge Alice Rosenfeld,

               3. the district court judge Rothschild,

and I recommend that you let the aforementioned disappear as quickly as possible.

The leader of SA-Obergruppe II,

signed. Lutze, M.d..R.”     [i.e. member of the Reichstag.]

One can only imagine the arrogant confidence of the writers of the letter, who, unhappy that an incident where up to 30 SA (Sturmabteilung – Nazi paramilitary wing “Storm Detachment) men had set upon a man wearing a Reichsbanner badge in his hat (anti fascist/ liberal organisation of the Weimar republic) and beaten him up, were questioned robustly by a Jewish court judge and found to have a case to answer – felt able to demand that Jewish judges be removed from office.

One can only imagine the feelings of that judge  – my grandfather- writing his carefully worded and thoughtful 5 page response to the accusation, only to be removed from his role within a week of his rebuttal as the Nazis came to power and removed all Jews from their public roles.

My grandfather died as a result of the physical ill- treatment he received in Dachau shortly after the war. But my grandmother survived and on occasion she would reminisce with me. One day she told me of her overwhelming fear in the early thirties – I think it must have been around the time of this court case – as she tried to persuade her husband to leave the country. He told her “I can’t. If the judges leave then there will be no justice”.

By the time he realised that there would be no judges and no justice it was too late to leave. Countries had closed their borders to Jews, they and extended family were trapped.

Last week I lit a yahrzeit candle for him. This week we are mark the European Holocaust Memorial Day and we repeat the words “never again” and “Zachor – Remember” hopefully and desperately in the knowledge that since the Shoah we have seen people dehumanised because of their ethnicity or religion, we have seen people attempt to erase any memory and any learning from memory.

And this week we read parashat Mishpatim. We read a parasha where a society is created by laws. A parasha structured to remind us that every single human being is of value, every single human being is of equal value, and that value is paramount in how we organise our society.

If only our society followed the structure set out in parashat mishpatim. To value human life, animal life, the natural world. To care for them, to protect them, to nourish and sustain and honour them. And only after that to consider material wealth, profit, gains.  If only we had a system where the person damaged was the most important to consider, not the damage to property or wealth.

We are witnessing an assault by government on our codes of justice. We are witnessing legislation whereby if the government does not agree with the judiciary, they will overrule the judgments. We are witnessing long term underfunding of our system which is causing it to break down. We are witnessing a government that thinks the law is not for them to follow. We are living in dangerous times.

And I think of my brave and lonely grandfather saying to my fearful and anxious grandmother. “If the judges leave there will be no justice.”

Hannover Judges. My grandfather Landgerichtsrat Dr Walter Fritz Louis Rothschild third row from the front, fourth from the right

International Holocaust Remembrance Day

Two years ago I visited the Rumbula Forest, near Riga in Latvia, where nearly 28 thousand Jews were killed in just two days in November and December 1941, and where a heartbreaking memorial to them is hidden among the trees. Some of my own family, the brothers and sisters of my great-grandfather and their children are buried in the mass graves marked out on the forest floor. Only three people survived the murder that took place here.

The visit was poignant and it was also infuriating. One reason it had taken so long to build anything here as a memorial is that the inscription on the memorial had become an issue when some Riga officials wanted language that would have obscured Latvian complicity. Eventually an agreed inscription meant the memorial could go ahead

HERE, ON NOVEMBER 30 AND DECEMBER 8 OF 1941 THE NAZIS AND THEIR LATVIAN COLLABORATORS SHOT TO DEATH MORE THAN 25,000 JEWS WHO WERE PRISONERS OF THE RIGA GHETTO – CHILDREN, WOMEN, ELDERLY MEN, AND APPROXIMATELY 1000 JEWS WHO HAD BEEN DEPORTED FROM GERMANY. IN THE SUMMER OF 1944 HUNDREDS OF JEWISH MEN FROM THE “RIGA–KEISERWALD” CONCENTRATION CAMP WERE ALSO KILLED HERE.

And the memorial was finally dedicated on November 29, 2002, more than sixty years after the terrible events it bespoke.

Why so long after the event? Because it was supposed to be forgotten. There was no one who wanted to remember what had happened in Riga, and in many many other places just outside villages and towns in Latvia, Lithuania, and other countries. No one wanted to remember, no one wanted to think about it.

Our guide told us something else about why it took such a long time to build a memorial there – the story was not entirely forgotten, but the exact place in the forest had been lost. No one could admit to knowing where it might be. It took the efforts of an interested botanist, who found plants in a particular area of the forest that needed the kind of nutrition only a well blood-soaked soil could provide, to identify the place of the murder of so many innocent people. Once he had found it, the mass grave pits were identified.

Eyewitness accounts are horrific: On this particular day (30 November 1941), the air temperature in Riga was -7.5C at 7:00a.m. and 1.9 degree C at 9:00 RM. On the previous evening, 29 November 1941, there had been an average snowfall of seven centimetres. On 30 November between 7:00 A.M.  and 9:00 p.m. it did not snow.

“The Mass Shootings outside Riga, 30 November and December 1941.                               

The  actual site of execution lay about five miles outside  Riga in  the direction of Duenaburg [Daugavpils], between the highway and  the railroad, both of which connect Riga and Duenaburg. The railroad tracks and the road there run a near-parallel  course, with  the railroad tracks running to the north of the road.  The site lies in the vicinity of the railroad station at Rumbuli; its  terrain  is sandy and slightly hilly, sparsely wooded,  and forms part of the Rumbuli Forest.

In the centre of this site was a densely forested area; this was the location of the actual execution site, with prepared pits designed to accommodate about thirty thousand bodies.  The approaching  columns of Jews coming from Riga along the  highway between  Riga  and Duenaburg had to turn left from  the  highway onto  a dirt track which led up to the small patch of woods.  In the process they were funnelled into a narrow cordon, which  was formed by SS units, a contingent of the Special Task Unit  Riga, and Latvian units.

 The  columns of Jews advancing from Riga, comprising  about  one thousand  persons each, were herded into the cordon,  which  was formed  in  such a way that it narrowed greatly as it  continued into the woods, where the pits lay. The Jews first of all had to deposit their luggage before they entered the copse; permission to carry these articles had only been granted to give the Jews the impression that they were taking part in a resettlement.  As they  progressed, they had to deposit their valuables in  wooden boxes,  and, little by little, their clothing – first overcoats, then suits, dresses, and shoes, down to their under clothes, all placed in distinct piles according to the type of clothing.

 Stripped down to their underclothes, the Jews had to move forward along the narrow path in a steady flow toward the pits, which they entered by a ramp, in single file and in groups often.  Occasionally the flow would come to a standstill when someone tarried at one of the undressing points; or else, if the undressing went faster than expected, or if the columns advanced too quickly from the city, too many Jews would arrive at the pits at once.  In such cases, the supervisors stepped in to ensure a steady and moderate flow, since it was feared that the Jews would grow edgy if they had to linger in the immediate vicinity of the pits….

 In the pits the Jews had to lie flat, side by side, face down. They were killed with a single bullet in the neck, the marksmen standing at close range-at the smaller pits, on the perimeter; at the large pit, inside the pit itself-their semi-automatic pistols set for single fire. To make the best of available space, and particularly of the gaps between bodies, the victims next in line had to lie down on top of those who had been shot immediately before them. The handicapped, the aged, and the young were helped into the pits by the sturdier Jews, laid by them on top of the bodies, and then shot by marksmen who in the large pit actually stood on the dead. In this way the pits gradually filled.” (Gerald Fleming, pp78-79 in Hitler and the Final Solution, University of California Press 1984)

As I walked around the memorial, which includes stones on which are marked the streets from the ghetto that victims had come from, and stones with the names of some of the victims, I found the names of my grandfather’s cousins, and a stone inscribed with the name of the street in the ghetto which I had visited only an hour or so earlier and from which my great grandmother had emigrated in 1892 to escape a bad marriage and grinding poverty. I called over my sister and cousin and overcome with emotion we stood in silence thinking of those people, named and unnamed, who had died here so horribly, whose story had very nearly been hidden away so that their very existence would have been lost. And then we said the Kaddish prayer.

Looking at the stones inscribed with my maternal family name, it became clear that, while this had begun as a journey to find our roots and see for ourselves the “old country” our family had left, the experience in the forest was also a way of directly encountering what our own past would have been had my great grandmother taken a different route. Going to the forest to see for ourselves was initially part of the search for family, to honour those we had not known, to connect with a community which had once thrived and whose roots were entangled with ours. Yet it was also so much bigger an experience than connecting with a personal past.

We mourned for family we never knew who had died in that strange place in the forest, but this could not only be a personal ache as our visits to other family places had been – our grief and prayers encompassed everyone who had died in that place because of their Jewish heritage.  And even this was not enough to say – the place of the industrial scale process of murder with its belated yet extraordinary memorial prompted us to pray for all victims of genocide. In fact I think it was the story of the large quiet forest and the botanist who identified this site through the nutrient rich soil, and the so-careful wording of the plaque, as well as the long period of time between the event and its public recognition that so powerfully drove us to understand something more about the dirty secrets of genocide wherever it occurs. It is always a dirty secret hiding in full public view, an enormity sitting in plain sight and this is one reason it is perpetuated.

In our siddur is a prayer written for specifically for Yom HaShoah. It includes the lines “we mourn for all that died with them, their goodness and their wisdom which could have saved the world and healed so many wounds. We mourn for the genius and the wit that died, the learning and the laughter that were lost. The world has become a poorer place and our hearts become cold as we think of the splendour that might have been.” (Rabbi Lionel Blue in Forms of Prayer pub Movement for Reform Judaism p388)

This visit might have been a profoundly family moment, a coming face to face with branches of my family tree that had been torn from life and from the future, and it was indeed that, but it was also a profoundly human moment – everyone in such a situation deserves our thoughts, our prayers, our determination never to let anyone have to be in this situation ever, ever again and to do that we have to tell the stories, we have to remember.

While visiting the memorial in the place in the forest so nearly lost forever, I thought of the Chasidic story about remembering:

“When the great Rabbi Israel Baal Shem-Tov saw misfortune threatening the Jews it was his custom to go into a certain part of the forest to meditate. There he would light a fire, say a special prayer, and the miracle would be accomplished and the misfortune averted. Later, when his disciple, the celebrated Maggid of Mezeritch, had occasion, for the same reason, to intercede with heaven, he would go to the same place in the forest and say: “Master of the Universe, listen! I do not know how to light the fire, but I am still able to say the prayer.” And again the miracle would be accomplished. Still later, Rabbi Moshe-Leib of Sasov, in order to save his people once more, would go into the forest and say: “I do not know how to light the fire, I do not know the prayer, but I know the place and this must be sufficient.” It was sufficient and the miracle was accomplished.

Then it fell to Rabbi Israel of Rizhyn to overcome misfortune. Sitting in his armchair, his head in his hands, he spoke to God: “I am unable to light the fire and I do not know the prayer; I cannot even find the place in the forest. All I can do is to tell the story, and this must be sufficient.” And it was sufficient.”  Elie Wiesel, The Gates of the Forest, introduction.

And I thought too of Simon Dubnow, the great historian and scholar murdered in the Riga ghetto, who is said to have said “If you survive, never forget what is happening here, give evidence, write and rewrite, keep alive each word and each gesture, each cry and each tear.”

Today, International Holocaust Remembrance Day, we do that, and more, we remember all who have been persecuted for their religion, their politics, their sexuality, their ethnicity. We weep for them all. And more than that, we affirm our commitment to combating such persecutions, such demonising of the other, such monstering of other human beings that hides in plain sight in our own world, in our media and our social networks, in the communities where we live and in our wider human society.

From Wikipedia

International Holocaust Remembrance Day, 27 January, is an international memorial day for the victims of the Holocaust, the genocide that resulted in the annihilation of 6 million Jews, 2 million Gypsies (Roma and Sinti), 15,000 homosexual people and millions of others by the Nazi regime and its collaborators. It was designated by the United Nations General Assembly resolution 60/7 on 1 November 2005 during the 42nd plenary session. The resolution came after a special session was held earlier that year on 24 January 2005 during which the United Nations General Assembly marked the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps and the end of the Holocaust. 27 January is the date, in 1945, when the largest Nazi death camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau, was liberated by Soviet troops.

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