Mishpatim: Justice Precedes Religion

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Mishpatim

Whew! After the thunder and lightening of last week’s parsha, this week the
Torah settles
down a bit and gets into lots of details about how to have a just and holy
community.
Thus, parshat Mishpatim has lots of particular laws- civil, criminal, family,
and so on, plus
a great story at the end about Moshe re-ascending the mountain with the leaders
of Israel.

Among the criminal laws in this week’s parsha is a straightforward decree of the
death
penalty for premeditated murder:

“But if a man plots deliberately against his friend to slay him with cunning,
[even] from My
altar you shall take him to die.” (Shmot/Exodus 21:14)

Now, for the moment, let’s NOT have a discussion of the death penalty in Jewish
thought-
suffice it to say that it’s part of Biblical justice in certain circumstances,
and the rabbis
who came along later greatly circumscribed its applicability. For today, let’s
just take it at
face value that the Torah is aiming for justice when it says that one who plots
out a
murder deserves the severest punishment.

OK, that’s straightforward enough, so why does the verse mention “even from My
altar you
shall take him?”

Rashi explains that this applies to a kohen [priest] who wanted to perform the
official
service in the Temple- even then, if he’s to be punished, neither his station
nor the need
for his religious duties will save him. What I take from this is the idea that
justice precedes
religion- that is, the honoring of human beings that we call justice is in some
situations
more of a religious duty than the honoring of God that we call religion.

Again- we can debate later whether the death penalty is the fullest
manifestation of justice
in our day and age. Today, let’s consider the idea that a sacred text could
teach that
sometimes, religion as such isn’t the most pressing priority. In a day and age
when people
riot over slights to their religious sensibilities, or kill each other in the
name of spiritual
purity, I want to see justice, fairness, and equality under the law as religious
ideals in
themselves, ideals which can provide a corrective to any temptation to put the
honor of
God above the welfare of God’s human children.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

PS- The first link leads to a page with a summary of the parsha and further
commentary,
and the second takes you to a page with links to the text itself, plus even MORE
great
commentaries:

http://www.myjewishlearning.com/texts/Weekly_Torah_Commentary/
mishpatim_index.htm

http://www.jtsa.edu/community/parashah/index.shtml

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