Archive for February, 2016

Mishpatim: A Nation of Laws

Copyright 2016 Neal Joseph Loevinger 

Torah Portion: Mishpatim 
 
You shall not tolerate a sorceress . . . . . (Shemot/ Exodus 22:17)
 
Good afternoon! 
 
This week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, literally means “laws” and has many commandments related to civil, family and criminal law, along with a stunning story of communal revelation at the end. The idea of religious law- or any law for that matter- is sometimes disparaged and set against spirit, or morality, or freedom, but I think Judaism would say that it is a well-ordered and just society that allows for individual morality, spirituality and creativity to flourish. Without fair laws, we are subject to individual and group passions and prejudices, the defects of which hardly needs elucidating. 
 
For example, the verse above is translated a little too nicely by the Jewish Publication Society as quoted. It is literally, “a sorceress shall not live.” Without going into all the details, suffice it to say that the Torah and the ancient leaders who held to it absolutely opposed anything connected to other deities, magical powers, or the occult, and it is hardly surprising that such practitioners were condemned. 
 
What is more surprising is our tradition’s insistence on due process for those it found most abhorrent. To wit, Rashi says that our verse teaches that witchcraft is a capital crime, but only if there is a proper beit din, or court proceeding. Now, in no way am I endorsing the death penalty for witchcraft (or anything else in America today) but I think we can learn from this our tradition’s moral commitment to avoid the injustice of the mob. Again, witches were one of the things the Torah hated most- but there is still no possibility in a Jewish view of justice for people to take the law in their own hands, since it is precisely a duly constituted court that can consider evidence and cool the passions of violent anger and hatred. 
 
At this point, I can guess that the objection would be: well, courts didn’t protect anybody during the Salem witch trials, or countless trials and inquisitions, did they? True enough, but the laws of evidence, testimony and conviction in Jewish jurisprudence would rule out most hearsay, rumor or rush to judgment. That’s the whole point: a nation of laws slows down the passions of the mob so that justice is not tainted by prejudice, fear, bigotry or politics. No system is perfect, but when I read in the Torah commentaries that even witches got their day in court, I am powerfully reminded that the Jewish ideal is to hold up reason in the place of fury. To reiterate, I am not suggesting that the verse above should be upheld literally, but only that its interpretation teaches us a powerful Jewish value: that those calling for blood and vengeance rarely have justice as their motive and never have justice as their result. Every person, created in God’s image, is entitled to the equal protection of a nation of laws, and it’s every person’s responsibility move society closer to that ideal. 
 
Shabbat Shalom, 
 
RNJL 
 
The views expressed are my own and do not reflect that of Vassar Brothers Medical Center or Health-Quest.
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