Mishpatim: speaking to us today to remind us to take care of the strangers who live amongst us

Introduced in this sidra, and threaded through the rest of the biblical text is a commandment so contemporary and relevant it is as if we can still hear the air vibrate with the divine voice. Here in parashat Mishpatim we are reminded not once, but twice, not to oppress or wrong the stranger:

וְגֵ֥ר לֹֽא־תוֹנֶ֖ה וְלֹ֣א תִלְחָצֶ֑נּוּ כִּֽי־גֵרִ֥ים הֱיִיתֶ֖ם בְּאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם: כא כָּל־אַלְמָנָ֥ה וְיָת֖וֹם לֹ֥א תְעַנּֽוּן: כב אִם־עַנֵּ֥ה תְעַנֶּ֖ה אֹת֑וֹ כִּ֣י אִם־צָעֹ֤ק יִצְעַק֙ אֵלַ֔י שָׁמֹ֥עַ אֶשְׁמַ֖ע צַֽעֲקָתֽוֹ:

And a stranger you will not wrong, neither shall you oppress them; for you  were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall not afflict any widow, or fatherless child.If you afflict them in any way–for if they cry at all to Me, I will surely hear their cry” (Exodus 22:20-22)

 וְגֵ֖ר לֹ֣א תִלְחָ֑ץ וְאַתֶּ֗ם יְדַעְתֶּם֙ אֶת־נֶ֣פֶשׁ הַגֵּ֔ר כִּֽי־גֵרִ֥ים הֱיִיתֶ֖ם בְּאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם:

“And a stranger you shall not oppress; for you know the heart of a stranger, seeing that you were strangers in the land of Egypt. (23:9)

This commandment is the subject of much commentary – not least the number of times it appears in the biblical text.

In the Babylonian Talmud we are told:

“It has been taught: Rabbi Eliezer the Great said: Why did the Torah warn against [wrongdoing] the proselyte in thirty-six, or as others say, in forty-six, places?  Because he has a strong inclination to evil. What is the meaning of the verse, You shall neither wrong a stranger, nor oppress him; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt?

It has been taught: Rabbi Nathan said: Do not taunt your neighbour with the blemish you yourself have (Babylonian Talmud, Baba Metzia 59b)

Thirty six or forty six repetitions of the warning against wronging a stranger – it is an extraordinary marker of something the biblical tradition holds dear – and a reminder of course that wronging strangers must be something easy to do in any society or the bible and later traditions would not feel the need to hammer home the point.

The reasons given in bible are generally either that having been oppressed ourselves we should take care not to put others into that position because we know the pain of it (remember that you were slaves in Egypt), or that God cares in particular for the vulnerable – and the stranger is repeatedly part of a list that includes the widowed and the orphaned, those with no family or economic security to support them. And both of these are powerful aspirations – that we, who know the pain of being an outsider should not make others outsiders, and that our society must be structured to ensure that the most vulnerable are protected and supported, that we should not expect God to do what is our obligation. We see ourselves as doing God’s work when we treat other human beings with dignity and respect, seeing God in them as our shared Creator, and it is telling that there is no blessing formula for our doing this kind of holy work – no beracha thanking God for the commandment, it is meant to be so ingrained in us that it has shaped our very identity.

Post biblical commentators explain this imperative to not wrong a stranger, to care for the vulnerable who are living amongst us, in a number of ways commensurate with their own context. Rabbi Eliezer ben Hurcanus, living in oppressive times under Roman rule while the second temple was destroyed and society was fractured and fractious, was concerned that should we treat the strangers amongst us badly they would turn on us and damage us – hence the “strong inclination to evil”.  For Rabbi Nathan of Babylon, who live a generation or so later, the issue was more that the Jewish people were likely to see in strangers things they recognised – and disliked – in themselves and would therefore externalise and reject their own attributes.

Rashi in eleventh century France, seeing the early crusaders sweep through in order the cleanse their society of others, suggests to us that the verse “for you were strangers” is there to remind us that if we hurt the strangers living amongst us they may also denounce and hurt us by reminding ourselves and others that we too are descended from strangers – a “blemish” we share with more modern immigrants by being foreign in the land we are living in.

And the Ramban (Nachmanides) who lived in 13th century Spain, a gentle character most of whose life was untroubled by political upheaval – at least until the disputation of Barcelona when he was already in his seventies – focuses differently on this commandment, saying “Do not oppress the stranger because you think he has no one to defend him; remember how Pharaoh learned that God defends the stranger. God is the shield of the oppressed, the one who sees the tears of those who have no one else to give them comfort. God will save every person from the hands of those stronger than he. God will always hear the cries of the widow and the orphan, the pleas of those who have no one upon whom to rely except their Father in Heaven”

Each of us reads bible in the context of our own experiences, but each of us must take note that there is a particular obligation on us to care for the vulnerable amongst us, be they our own people who have fallen on hard times and who need our support (the widowed and the orphaned) or be they strangers who have come to live alongside us in the land: (The ger). We may tell ourselves different narratives about this obligation, but we must honour it in action. We might remember that Abraham was an Ivri – from across the river – who introduced himself to the people of Het as a resident alien among them, we might see the pain of Moses who called one of his sons Gershon (ger-sham) because he was a stranger among the people he was living with and found it most painful when he had a child away from his own people. We might recognise that we are like the stranger, even if we are settled and they are not. We might recognise the spark of the divine in every human being. We might respond to the ethics of caring for the vulnerable, the orphan, widow and foreigner, or feel the gaze of God on us asking us to do what we know to be the right thing

We might notice that each of these are somehow cut off from their roots, less supported by family than the rest of us, with less available family around them for whatever reason. Indeed Ibn Ezra, himself forced to leave Spain and wander for much of his later life when the incoming Almohad regime began to persecute the Jews, commented on our verse that “The reason for the prohibition ‘You shall not wrong a stranger’ (Exodus 22:20)…is that he has no family roots”

All of which is to say that the normal human desire to create a group of like-people around oneself, to isolate oneself from strangers and  to ignore them, to build a society which excludes them, is known to bible and is firmly disapproved of. Time and again we are warned, reminded, instructed – care for the vulnerable, in particular those who need help, in particular those without a structure to support them, in particular the widow, orphan and foreigner who are trying to survive right by you.

So it is possibly not surprising when one reads that most of Europe is doing all it can to keep the great wave of migration away, to turn its back on the frightened, the poor, the victims of warring groups, the homeless, the desperate. Not surprising, but not acceptable either. And when Israel, a land created by Jews whose historical narrative has been the despised outsider since the fall of the second temple – when Israel behaves without the Derech Eretz, without the ethical and judicial imperatives to look after strangers, it is time for Jews all over the world to step up and remind our people of the most common commandment in Bible, and the obligation to obey it.

Israel was one of the first signatories of the UN convention on Refugees in 1951 and committed herself to making the asylum process and painfree and humane as possible.

Today there are about thirty eight thousand Africans seeking refuge in Israel, who have come mainly from the war torn areas of Sudan and Eritrea. They live mainly in South Tel Aviv. About five thousand children are in this group, and about seven thousand women. The conditions are not good, they are crowded and the local population is also economically and socially vulnerable. The situation has been allowed to spiral so that competition between the different populations means that there is less work, higher rents, little sense of community and enormous pressure on all the people.

Because of a Supreme Court judgment that Israel, which recognises it cannot send the people back to certain danger, can instead send them to a ‘neutral’ third country (understood to be Rwanda or possibly Uganda), the pressure to deport the refugees with their ‘consent’ is growing with a financial incentive to get them to leave or the threat of jail if they refuse.

Asylum applications are complicated and often the paperwork gets lost in the system, so of the approximately fourteen thousand applications filed, only eleven Sudanese and Eritrean refugees have been accepted, with about six thousand refused and the rest lost in the system.

Israel takes pride in being a Jewish state, which means it should be based on Jewish values. The present government is simply ignoring these values. But  the Jewish people are not ignoring these values and many groups are doing their best to change the policy of Government to better align with the most frequent exhortation in bible – love your neighbour as yourself, care for the vulnerable, treat the stranger with the same law as the home born – however you frame it, wherever you delve into the biblical text,  this is our core religious activity.

Jews outside of Israel are protesting to the Government in many ways. Haaretz just reported https://www.haaretz.com/us-news/protests-against-israel-s-deportation-plan-gather-worldwide-1.5804320   After thousands of demonstrators gathered in front of the Rwandan embassy in Herzliya to protest the deportation of asylum seekers from Israel to the African country, thousands more joined them in protest outside Rwandan missions around the world in over a dozen cities….Michael Sfard, a Tel Aviv–based human rights lawyer who represents victims of civil rights violations, told the crowd he is ashamed that his own government “does not live up to the lessons that should have been learned from our own history, from our own collective biography.”

Rabbis for Human Rights are educating and among the activists – see http://rhr.org.il/eng/2018/02/parashat-mishpatim-gerim-midst/

Rabbi Susan Silverman is leading a call to hide asylum seekers facing forced deportation, http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/rabbis-pledge-to-protect-african-asylum-seekers-facing-deportation-from-israel_us_5a60f743e4b05085db6096a3

Other Jewish and Israeli human rights organisations are focussing on helping – such as

The Hotline for Migrants and Refugees http://hotline.org.il/en/main/   protects the rights of refugees, migrant workers and victims of human trafficking

CIMI  https://www.cimi.org.il/      the Centre for International Migration and Integration, has been leading a campaign to adopt and advocate young people who first arrived in Israel as unaccompanied minors, among other work to help integrate migrants.

The Anne Frank Home Sanctuary Movement (Miklat Israel),  is an initiative to hide asylum seekers slated for deportation in private homes. Rabbis and holocaust survivors are among the people providing such sanctuary

עוצרים את הגירוש a grassroots effort to stop the impending deportations through disseminating information, protests, and social media campaigns.

http://www.asylumseekers.org/  Right Now! Advocates for  for Asylum Seekers in Israel and is running an advocacy campaign abroad.

“You shall not turn over a slave who seeks refuge with you. He shall live with you in any place he may choose, within one of your gates. You must not mistreat him” – Deuteronomy 23:16-17.

Let me finish with a text from Sefer haChinuch, an anthology of the mitzvot from 13th century Spain:

“It is for us to learn from this precious commandment to take pity on any man who is in a town or city that is not his native ground and site of the family of his fathers.  Let us not maltreat him in any way, finding him alone, with those who would aid him quite far from him – just as we see that the Torah adjures us to have compassion on anyone who needs help.  With these qualities we will merit to be treated with compassion by the Eternal God Be He blessed”

 

 

photo taken from internet Jewish Chronicle page reporting the story Students and teachers protest against the deportation of African asylum seekers, Tel Aviv, January 24, 2018 Photo: Flash 90

The minor daughter sold to another man:parashat mishpatim asserts her rights.

 

“And if a man sell his [minor] daughter to be a maidservant (le’amah) she shall not leave as the male servants do. If she does not please her master who should be espoused to her/ who is not espoused to her, then he shall let her be redeemed.  He has no power to sell her on to a foreign people for he has dealt deceitfully with her. And if he espouses her to his son then he will treat her as he would treat a daughter. And if he takes another wife [having married her himself] he must not diminish her food, clothing allowance or conjugal rights. And if he fails to provide her with these, then she shall be able to leave freely, without any money to be paid” (Exodus 21:7-11)

Sometimes in bible we are taken aback at the worldview of the text, a perspective that is so far from ours as to seem it comes from a completely different universe.  One response has been to effectively excise some texts from the biblical canon, never going to far as to physically remove them perhaps, but certainly to ensure that they are not read or brought forward to support our current system of beliefs or actions.

At first reading the fate of a minor daughter seems to be that she is powerless and of use only insofar as money can be made from her. It appears that the daughter is an asset to be leveraged for the benefit of the father or the family. And this must have seemed to be reasonable to some, for otherwise why would we find in the Babylonian wisdom literature the maxim – “The strong man lives off what is paid for his arms (strength), but the weak man lives off what is paid for his children” which is surely warning people not to sell their children for profit.

Bible however is a subtle text and we cannot simply read the first half of the verse without the conditions required in the second half and the following verses on the subject. It begins with the presumption that a man may sell his daughter to be a maidservant   (AMAH ).  Immediately we note that this must be a minor daughter over whom the father has authority, which already limits the possibility for him to take this action. Then we see that while the word ‘AMAH’ is used and is posited against the male servants (AVADIM) the word that is NOT used is ‘SHIFCHA’ a word which is more servile in its usage. AMAH can be used of a free woman when speaking to a social superior; SHIFCHA is not used in this way. So she is being sold not as a slave but as an AMAH, a status that Hagar, Bilhah and Zilpah are also described as having, and as Ruth and Hannah, Abigail and Michal will also  describe themselves later in bible.

After this introductory phrase that must have been familiar to the original audience for the biblical text, that a many might sell his daughter to another, comes a set of conditions that make clear that whatever the girl is being sold for, her rights are clearly stated and they are tightly drawn and powerfully asserted.

First – she is not someone who is sold as a male slave for whom the sabbatical year of jubilee year will end the contract being made and from this we can clearly deduce that while the context of the narrative is the rights of the Hebrew slave, the rights of this minor girl are different. Something else is happening here and the contract is quite different.

The first clue is the expectation that she is being sold into the household of a man who will later expect to marry her and raise her status accordingly. What is she doing in his household? She is learning the business of becoming a wife and director of the household, something that for whatever reason she does not have access to in her own parental home.

The text then goes on. If the master of the house does not wish to marry her at the appropriate time of her maturity, then he must arrange that she is redeemed from the contract. Rabbinic law assumes that someone in her family will act as go’el and pay out the remaining debt her father has incurred.

The master of the house is expressly forbidden from passing her on to another family – she is not property to be sold on, she is not to be given in prostitution. The bible is absolutely clear – if he does not marry her then he has broken the original contract and so he now has no legal power or ability to direct her future.

The one curiosity here is that there is a kerei ketiv – that is the text is written in one way but understood differently. The negative LO (Lamed Alef) is written, but the text is read as if the word were LO (Lamed Vav). As written it would read “Her master who has not become espoused to her”, as read it is “Her master who has become espoused to her”.  It seems that the Masoretic text cannot imagine that her master did not begin by arranging the engagement, the first part of the marital contract, and instead they think he must have changed his mind once she grew up and was unwilling to go through with it. I think this underlines just how deeply the assumption was that the contract between the father of the girl and the master of the house was that she was being given up early to be married in the future – either because the father was too poor to offer a dowry at the time it would be needed, or too poor even to support her while she grew up. It may even have been done in order to settle the girl’s future in times of political unrest. We know that the Jewish marriage ceremonies which are nowadays done either in one day or at least very closely together were originally separated into the two ceremonies of betrothal and subsequent marriage and that these could take place years apart from each other, the ‘bride’ and ‘groom’ continuing to live in their respective homes after the betrothal for many years before the actual marriage took place and the couple came together as a new family.

Bible gives the possibility that should she not marry the father of the house, then she might marry the son of the house – something which may have delayed her future status but not otherwise significantly alter it. And if she did marry the son rather than the father, her rights as a full member of the family are once again asserted. She is to be treated in every way as a daughter of the house.

The passage then lays down the rights of the girl should she subsequently find that her husband takes another wife – something that might damage her status in the home and leave her marginalised and potentially poorer than before he did so. Thus bible clarifies that the rights of the wife to food, clothing and sex are absolute, and that nothing and nobody can diminish these rights.

It ends with the clear statement about the limits of the contract even if the man has broken it by espousing the girl to his son and therefore lost all rights of ‘ownership’ or privilege.

Should the girl find that she is not being given the full status of married woman, that she is not given the food, clothing and sex that are her rights, then she is free to go – the man has broken his contract and has no hold over her whatsoever – she does not need to be redeemed by a goel or even pay any remaining debt incurred by her father and by her own maintenance in the household – she is a free woman in every way

This passage, which on first reading appears to say that a minor girl can be treated as a chattel to be sold at the whim of her father to a man who would then establish his own ownership is nothing of the sort. The bible actually stops a man selling his daughter as a slave for the purposes of prostitution, and in this first and only legislation in the ancient near east to discuss the rights of a girl who is sold, the girl is protected by some quite draconian legislation, her rights and the obligations to her spelled out beyond the possibility that someone might try to reinterpret what is happening.  Interestingly any obligation of the girl is not mentioned. While we assume she will work to pay for her maintenance, this is not specified. The text is interested only in protecting her and putting boundaries around what the men in her life may think they are able to do with her.

While it would be nice to think that she would be consulted in the betrothal as Rebecca was (albeit without seeing Isaac) we must be grateful for what we get in the world view in which bible was formed. We have here the basis for the rights of all wives – to food, clothing and a home/ sexual relations. Rabbinic law took the text from here in order to provide a basic minimum for every woman who threw her lot in with a man in marriage, and thus protected women in a world which was otherwise potentially disrespectful and without care for her needs.

The unknown AMAH of Mishpatim is the beneficiary of quite phenomenally forward thinking law. Her personhood was respected far more than the mores of the time. There might even be a case to say that a girl from a poor family who might otherwise only be able to look forward to a life of hardship and work either married to a man too poor to offer her much or not able to provide a dowry in order to be married at all, would in this way be able to jump out of her impoverished setting into one of economic security.  One cannot help but think of the women from less economically thriving countries offering themselves in marriage on the internet to men from wealthier countries in order to better their own standard of living.

I cannot say I am thrilled by this passage, but we must be aware of the context of the narrative and the legal codes it comes to replace. The sale of minors was common throughout Assyria and Babylonia and there are documents to suggest it was also in practise in Syria and Palestine. And we see in the book of Kings (2K 4:1) that children might be seized into slavery by their dead parents’ creditors. Nuzi documents show that sale into a conditional slavery was practised, whereby the girl would always be married but not to the master of the house, rather to another slave. The genius of the biblical amendment was that the girl was to be raised in status and treated properly for her whole life, and that she would be freed if certain conditions were not met.

The minor daughter of a man who needed to be free of the economic burden she represented was vulnerable. To this day in some societies daughters are perceived as less valuable, less giving of status to the family, and as people who will never be as economically worthy as sons. It remains true of course that women’s work is not valued in the same way that work done by men is and sadly many women have bought into this viewpoint so even high flying career women will see an increasing gap between their remuneration and that of their male colleagues.

It would be wonderful for this perception to be erased. There is no intellectual or scientifically validated case for it to be held, and yet even in modernity it holds great power in society.  Bible cannot help us here, but it is something to hold on to – that bible restricts the rights of men over their vulnerable daughters and over the defenceless women in their household and it clearly and powerfully ascribes and asserts rights for those women, rights which Jewish legal codes have had to uphold even in highly patriarchal and paternalistic times and groups.

It looks to me from this text that God is aware of the problem humans seem to have with gendered power, and has set a model for dealing with it we could emulate. As the Orthodox Union just tried to curtail the rights of women in scholarship and leadership positions with a  responsum so out of touch and lacking respect for its own constituency, it is good to see that this ancient text gives a lead on the building of the status of women who may need such building, and does not try to either take advantage of them nor to diminish their place in the world.

 

To study further I recommend reading:

“Slavery in the Ancient Near East”. I Mendelsohn in “The biblical Archaeologist”  vol 9 number 4

Josef Fleischman in The Jewish Law Annual ed. Berachyahu Lifshitz. Taylor & Francis, 1 Sep 2000

http://www.jta.org/2017/02/02/top-headlines/ou-bars-women-from-serving-as-clergy-in-its-synagogues

 

 

 

Mishpatim: Torah MiSinai is only one half of the conversation

In parashat Yitro is the climactic coming together of God and the Israelite people as three months after the dramatic exodus from Egypt following signs and wonders, the people are encamped at the foot of Mt Sinai and Moses and God encounter each other once more in order to create the agreement that as long as the people will obey God’s voice and keep the covenant, then they will be God’s special treasure among all the peoples of the earth, and shall become a kingdom of priests to God, and a holy nation. (Exodus 19:5,6). A period of purification is followed by the majesty of the presence of God, and the words of God are declaimed amid black smoke, thunder and lightning, terrifying the people who declare their willingness to accept the covenant but ask for Moses to be their representative and for them to keep well away from whatever is going on.

The relationship is consummated with words, called in Hebrew the Asseret haDibrot, the Ten Statements, which function essentially as the paragraph headings that prescribe the boundaries and the requirements of the relationship.

Like any new relationship, each side views the other as pretty wonderful, there is no need immediately to get into the gritty details of the red lines and the expectations that will make living together successful or not. But soon of course those realities set in and the couple have to ‘talk tachlis’. Hence the detailed miscellany of laws in the following chapters, including a whole sidra named ‘mishpatim’: the laws and rules of the relationship.

This year, I was especially drawn to thinking about the authority of the rules – who gets to decide what they are, who gets to change them, and to ask – how does the relationship evolve?

In Exodus 24 we have insight into the beginning of the ‘tachlis period’. Moses is to come alone to God. There has been some etiquette about introducing the leaders of the people further up the Mountain, but now Moses tells the people all God’s words and the people answer in unified response “all the words which the Eternal spoke we will do”. Then Moses writes down all the words of God (it is not clear where he does this), after which he builds an altar representing the entire people and there is a sacrificial rite, followed by this information “And Moses took the book of the covenant, and read in the hearing of the people; and they said: ‘All that the Eternal has spoken will we do, and we will understand.’ (24:7)

What is this Book of the Covenant? Why does Moses follow his reading – and the people’s oddly worded response – with a ritual where he takes the blood of the previous sacrifice, sprinkles it on the people and tells them ‘Behold the blood of the covenant, which the Eternal has made with you in agreement with all these words.’ We now have a Book of the Covenant (Sefer ha brit) and Blood of the Covenant (dam ha brit) and then suddenly we are in a vision, as the 70 plus elders of Israel find themselves at a feast where they see God standing on a clear sapphire pavement.

Just as suddenly we are out. God tells Moses ‘Come up to Me into the mount and be there; and I will give you the tablets of stone, and the Torah (teaching) and the commandment (mitzvah)(, which I have written, that you may teach them.’ (v12)

What are these tablets of stone, the Torah and the Mitzvah that Moses is to teach? How do they fit into the covenant? Why then does Moses stay on the mountain after this for forty days and nights, hidden in cloud, leaving his people leaderless and frightened and alone?

The text, like the top of the mountain, is opaque. We cannot understand the encounter, only know that there was indeed such a moment that cemented the relationship between God and Israel, a relationship that might go through many rocky patches and many silences, but which will never actually break. We have a brit, a covenant, and we are tied to each other for eternity.

But what are the parameters of the covenant? What do we have to do? What will we come to understand? And while the existence of the covenant is unchanging, the conditions have clearly developed and altered.

The Talmud sets out the traditional position of the verse asking: What is the meaning of “And I will give you the tablets of stone and the law and the commandment, which I have written so that you can teach them”? “Tablets of stone”-these are the Ten Commandments, “the law” -this is the Torah, “the commandment”- this is the Mishnah,” which I have written”- these are the Prophets and the Writings, “that you may teach them”- this is the Gemara. And it teaches that they were all given to Moses on Sinai (TB Berachot 5a).

This passage is frequently cited as the proof text of Torah miSinai – that God gave to Moses everything that would become Rabbinic Judaism in later years. Either it was given at Sinai or it has no authenticity runs the argument. But surely this cannot be a literal reading of the biblical text, nor a complete reading of the Talmudic one.

The phrase Torah mi Sinai is found only once in Talmudic texts – in the introduction to the Mishnah of Pirkei Avot, where we are told “Moses received the Torah from Sinai and transmitted it Joshua. Joshua transmitted it to the Elders, the Elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets transmitted it to the Men of the Great Assembly. They [the Men of the Great Assembly] said three things: Be deliberate in judgment, raise many students, and make a protective fence for the Torah.”

It is found not at all in Bible, and indeed while the seeds of the idea of divine revelation encompassing the whole of what became Rabbinic/Halachic Judaism can be discerned, they are only in the later books of Chronicles and of Ezra and Nehemiah, books which are generally seen as being written only in the 5th/4th Century BCE. These books use the words haTorah / Torah while earlier books refer always to Torot, a plurality of teachings. The Book of Nehemiah even refers to Ezra reading In the book, in the Law of God, (BaSefer, b’torat Elohim) distinctly; and they gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading. (8:8,18), and also” Ezra the scribe [was asked] to bring the book of the Law of Moses, which the Eternal had commanded to Israel”, and so clearly by the early Second Temple period there was a tradition of a Mosaic/divine book of Torah, which is variously described as being the Torah of God or the Torah of Moses, something unknown in earlier biblical texts.

This idea is seized upon by the Rabbis who took for themselves the right to decide not only what the texts would mean, but also used it to assert their authority and control over the people. Hence we have the midrashic text in Leviticus Rabbah (5th Century) ““everything an experienced pupil might ever say to his teacher was revealed to Moses at Sinai.”, and the more worrying Mishnah Sanhedrin (10:1) “…These have no share in the World to Come: One who says that [the belief of] resurrection of the dead is not from the Torah, [one who says that] that the Torah is not from Heaven, and one who denigrates the Torah..”

Why did they do this? Was it in order to emphasise the authenticity of their authority post Temple, against the Karaites and the Sadducees and those who wished to continue Priestly authority? This would certainly make sense as they were reinventing what it meant to be Jewish after the central worship authority had disappeared, and a multiplicity of rival claims may have spread the Jewish people too thinly to survive.

But we are in a different world, where literary criticism and scholarship that takes into account the context of a text mean that we can see that Torah miSinai cannot be a literal description of our foundational texts. Even Maimonides, who famously enshrined Torah miSinai into his thirteen principles of faith, would surely have framed those principles differently in modern times, (And one must also take into account the context of those principles that became Yigdal – he was responding to Islamic claims about the superiority of its revelatory texts).

Whatever the Torah of Moses /the Torah of God means, for which the shorthand remains “Torah miSinai”, it has become a barrier for the Jewish people rather than an enabler. People who have good academic understanding in the secular world find the notion of one book literally given at one time on a desert mountain to be improbable, which means that the world of scriptural literalists tries to keep modernity away from ‘their’ Jews, with terrible consequences often. People who seek to understand the text differently are shunned or worse, treated as if they are no longer Jews. And then there is the halachic process, which from being a dynamic and responsive practice has become solidified and deeply unhelpful often, simply because there is nothing ‘miSinai’ that pushes for change.

I love the idea of God speaking with Moses in the presence of the entire people, and that being an inspirational and creative moment that energised the ongoing relationship of God and the Jews. But I hate the idea that the route to the relationship is held in the hands of people with little understanding of modernity or the modern Jewish people and State, who try to excommunicate anyone who challenges or brings in modern ideas from the Covenant and the peoplehood.

It is time to reclaim Torah MiSinai, to go back to that moment where the whole people heard and said, we will do and we will understand, and while they may have deputed Moses to negotiate the contract on their behalf, did not abdicate their own responsibility for being part of the development of what the contract would mean over time.

_Moses_on_Mount_Sinai_Jean-Léon_Gérôme_-1895-1900

Mishpatim: Respecting life, do not add insult to injury

Three times Torah tells us not to boil a kid in its mother’s milk. (Exodus 23:13, 34:26 and Deuteronomy 14:21)
Why is Torah so interested and concerned about this practise that it repeats the prohibition so insistently?
The probable reason is that this act must have been one that was practised by the surrounding peoples for religious/idolatrous reasons and it must also have been seen as quite attractive to the Israelite people – otherwise why would Torah mention it?
Talmudic rabbis give no reasons for the prohibition. It is the later commentators from the medieval period who turn their attention to a rationale. Maimonides(died 1204) suggests that it was an idolatrous practise but he gives no supporting text for his statement. Sforno (d 1550) also thought that the law referred to an idolatrous practise in which young goats were cooked in their mother’s milk as a kind of fertility rite and indeed an Ugaritic text translated in the 1930’s seems to talk of an agricultural fertility ritual of doing just this, followed by spreading the mixture on the fields.
But whether or not this was a practise of the surrounding peoples performed in order to bring about fertility or to appease their gods, the prohibition of “basar be’chalav” (meat in milk) is profoundly embedded in Jewish dietary practise, and the three references are used as the basis for three separate laws:
The prohibition against cooking a mixture of milk and meat
The prohibition against eating a cooked mixture of milk and meat and
The prohibition against deriving any benefit from a cooked mixture of milk and meat. (BT Chullin 115a)
However regardless of the origin of this prohibition, and also of the way that the Jewish legal tradition has taken it, there is another, ethical dimension to the statement.
Sforno argued that as well as this being a practise of idolatry, the using of the milk of an animal to cook its child is inhumane, and he compared it to the principle of shilu’ach ha’keyn – the injunction to send away the mother bird from a nest before taking the eggs, so that she does not get distressed in seeing it. Ibn Ezra also understood the injunction ethically, to mean that one should not to kill a mother and its offspring at the same time, as this would show an inexcusable lack of sensitivity to life.
But the ethical message was, I think, best put by Rabbi Hugo Gryn z’l who echoes Philo of Alexandria by suggesting that the passage was in reality an imperative not to add insult to injury – that is, not to use the thing meant to nurture a child as the agent of its destruction. This isn’t about mixing milk with meat, but about cooking with mother’s milk – about bringing together life and death in some terrible symbolic fusion.
Judaism has a profound respect for life – even that of a herd animal. Hence our system of shechita (kosher slaughter) so that a life taken for food is taken reflectively and respectfully. This respect for life is also demonstrated in the value we must place on every human being, no matter what their social status or their state of health and ability to contribute to the community.
Life is a gift, to be enjoyed and valued, respected at all times. Whatever happens in our lived experience, we should take care not to add insult to injury but to treat everyone with the same respect and sensitivity.

Parashat Mishpatim. What is the purpose of mitzvot?

This sidra follows on from the dramatic events at Mount Sinai and the giving of the Aseret Hadibrot – the Ten Statements, and in effect it fills in the detail missing from those headline legal principles. Mishpatim means ‘laws’ or ‘rulings’ and they will govern the community who agree to accept them. And what a curious collection they are. Of the more than fifty mitzvot to be found in the sidra, we have some that deal with the treatment of slaves, with the crimes of murder and kidnap, with personal injury and with civil damages through neglect or theft. There are rules about witchcraft and idolatry, about oppression and unfair business practise, about applying legal codes in a prejudiced fashion and not giving false testimony; laws about not mistreating widows and orphans, and about care for animals.

The most frequent mitzvah in Torah, given at least 37 different times in the text, is repeated here too – “you shall not wrong a stranger or oppress them, for you were strangers in the land of Israel.”

 There are rules about the Sabbath, about the sabbatical year and about the three pilgrim festivals of Succot, Shavuot and Pesach.

It is a mishmash of a legal code but what comes through loud and clear to the reader is the importance to the Jewish people of mitzvot, commandments.

From Torah we see that for the ancient people there were particular reasons for observing the mitzvot – firstly and most importantly because God tells us to. Secondly there was in the ancient understanding an idea that people who obeyed them would be rewarded, and people who disobeyed risked punishment. Then there were two different types of reason given in Torah – that the mitzvot were intrinsically imbued with divine wisdom, and that they would lead us to achieving holiness.  

Interestingly while Judaism teaches that mitzvot are divinely ordained and therefore not to be questioned or even necessarily understood, it does at the same time try to explain them as a rational force, and many commentators suggest reasons for our doing them. We are told: – “The essential reason for the commandments is to make the human heart upright” ( ibn Ezra on Deut 5:18); or “Each commandment adds holiness to the people of Israel.” (Issi ben Akavia,  Mechilta on Ex 22:30); or even that “The purpose of the mitzvot is…to promote compassion, loving kindness and peace in the world” (Maimonides, yad, Shabbat)

So there is a tension in our tradition – do we do the commandments (mitzvot) simply because there is a Commander (metzaveh) who told us to do this and this should be enough, or do we search out a meaning behind each mitzvah? And if we do the latter, what happens if we cannot find a suitable reason and meaning? Do we abandon the mitzvah as unreasonable or pointless? Or do we continue to do it in the hope that meaning will emerge? After all, at Sinai the people famously answered “na’aseh ve’nishma, [first] we will do it and [subsequently] we will understand”.

The tension and balancing between holding a religious belief and a rationalist position was as great in the ancient world as it is today. Blind faith was never a prerequisite of a Jewish life and one could argue that the story of the Akedah (the story of the binding of Isaac) is as much polemic against such a narrow devotion as it is against child sacrifice. After all, Abraham never again talks to God, to his wife, nor to his son after his extreme ‘obedience’ to God’s will. Yet clear understanding of the meaning of what we do is not the great goal either – if we only behaved in a way we understood and could defend rationally we would find our lives impoverished and diminished beyond all imagination. Blaise Pascal had it right when he said “If we submit everything to reason our religion will be left with nothing mysterious or supernatural. If we offend the principles of reason our religion will be absurd and ridiculous . . . There are two equally dangerous extremes: to exclude reason, to admit nothing but reason.” (from Pensees)

Judaism tends to the position of na’aseh ve’nishma – doing in order to understand, blending faith and reason and giving neither the upper hand, but instead knowing that if we behave “as if” we believe, if we follow the way of mitzvot, then further understanding may come. Meanwhile we are impacting on ourselves and on our world in a positive way as we are directed to behaviour that may not be our first instinct – to support the poor and downtrodden, to value life, to respect the boundaries of others, to rein in our own power and desires so as not to trample over the lives of others. The list goes on.  

As tradition says again and again in different words, the same message:  “the commandments were given only to refine God’s creatures…”(Midrash Tanchuma). They change us, they cause us to think about what we are doing and not to act out of immediate self interest, they shape our behaviour and ultimately they may help us to bring holiness into our world.