Mishpatim: The Curse of Cursing

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Mishpatim

You shall not revile God, nor put a curse upon a chieftain among your people. (Shmot/Exodus 22:27)

This week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, gets its name from the Hebrew root related to judges and the judicial system; a mishpat is a just law, and a shofet is a judge. Hence, the portion is mostly laws pertaining to a fair and good society, dealing with everything from civil cases to criminal law to ritual to the judicial system itself. The law quoted above seems straightforward: one must not curse either God or a human judge or other civil authority.

Yet the ancient rabbis ask a basic question: what difference does it make if one curses the judge or local official? If one is a litigant, it won’t change the outcome of the court case, and if one is a citizen, cursing the mayor doesn’t mean you don’t have to obey the laws of the town. So the rabbis have various understandings of the moral basis of this prohibition: some say it’s to preserve the honor and feelings of the judge- who is, after all, a human being with human emotions. Some say the prohibition on cursing judges is given to preserve respect for the system as a whole, for if we didn’t have laws and people to interpret them, society would fall apart very quickly.

A third interpretation holds that the harm is not to the judge but to the one who curses, who becomes coarse and undignified through the expression of unchecked anger, while a fourth reading takes into account not so much the immediate hurt feelings of the judge or official but the long-term effect on society. According to this view, if litigants and citizens are always cursing and insulting judges or elected officials, people in positions of authority may decide it’s just too much trouble and pain to serve in such positions, and then worse people will take their places. This could happen even if a given official doesn’t hear a given insult, but merely hears of all the gossip and slander going around about others or public servants in general.

Clearly, these interpretations are not mutual exclusive, but they all point to a keen understanding of human nature: people tend to resent those with whom they disagree, and resentment can quickly turn into gossip, insult, slander, and humiliating speech. Please note: the ancient rabbis are not saying one should not disagree with elders or authorities; studying any page of Talmud quickly reveals a culture of vigorous debate and vociferous disagreement about important issues of the day. Rather, the rabbis are pointing the way towards an ethic of disagreement grounded in respect for the humanity of those who serve in positions of authority, as long as the system itself is legitimate and power is not abused.

A true story: last night I received a long and thoughtful email from a member of Temple Beth-El in which the writer respectfully but quite strongly disagreed with something I’d written. This email directly quoted my article, pointed out alternative understandings of the situation, and made suggestions for future action which would look quite different from what I’d proposed. I must confess that my immediate reaction to disagreement with my suggestions is often an immature negativity towards the speaker; but once that passed (in this case, within a minute or so), I was actually felt quite honored that someone had read my proposal closely enough to disagree with it so carefully and logically!

Times are hard, and anger is easy to come by. Radio, cable TV and the internet constantly propagate delegitimizing invective in all directions, and when budgets are shrinking and everybody must sacrifice, resentment is a natural human emotion. That’s where Torah steps in and says: stop and think about the effects of speech. Stop and think about the immediate and long-term effects of your actions, not only upon others but the effect on you, as a spiritual being. I believe human beings reach our full potential in community, and for community to thrive, each of us must commit to the spiritual disciple of thoughtful speech and channeling our anger.

That is the path of honoring the Divine Image in others and in ourselves, and lays the foundation for the just society that Torah asks us to imagine and build.

Shabbat Shalom,


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