Archive for Mishpatim

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, 
The views expressed are my own and do not reflect that of Vassar Brothers Medical Center or Health-Quest.

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Mishpatim: The Power of Life and Death

Copyright 2015 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Mishpatim

You shall not side with the mighty to do wrong. . . . . .   (Shemot/ Exodus 23:2)

Good afternoon!

The Torah portion Mishpatim is mostly civil and criminal laws, along with instructions about how to apply those laws. Some of the laws and instructions are oriented toward ordinary citizens, while some, like the first verses of Chapter 23, seem to be for the regulation of judges and officials. The context of verse 2, quoted in part above, seems to be fairness in judging, forbidding the judge or official from taking the side of either rich (because of influence) or poor (because of sympathy) in a dispute. Rather, according to what seems to be plain meaning of the text, the law must be applied fairly, without regard to the social standing of either plaintiff or defendant.

So far, so good, and would that we lived in a society that truly applied its laws fairly, as is, I believe, our American ideal. On the other hand, there’s an interesting interpretation of the verse above that gets into the details of the ancient Jewish judiciary, which I think will in turn impart an important moral challenge. According to some interpretations, “don’t side with the mighty” really means “don’t side with the majority,” meaning in turn, that a judge on a panel of judges must speak up, even against the majority opinion. Sforno goes on to say that “don’t follow the majority to do wrong” means don’t be the tie-breaking vote in a capital punishment case, because if a criminal is condemned by a one-vote majority, it’s the same as being condemned by a single judge, which is not part of the ancient Jewish judicial system.

This strikes me as a profound recognition of the humbling and awesome power of life and death inherent in judicial, political and military systems, a power which cannot be held by a vote of just one, lest that one judge be misguided, biased, or influenced by external factors. Many contrasts with modern life might be made, but one in particular that comes to mind is the current use of computer algorithms to determine drone strikes in the war against terror groups. These “signature strikes” are often determined by computer analysis of certain behaviors, which indicate a possibility of terrorist affiliation. Note, however, with some of these drone strikes, we have no idea who we are killing, or if they have any terrorist links at all, or how many civilians are killed along with any possible enemies.

Counter-terrorism policy will be debated by experts, but I hope all Americans engage the moral questions inherent in the actions done in our name. The deliberation and clarity needed to condemn a criminal in the days of the ancient rabbis stands in stark contrast to a world in which computer programs mete out life and death in a flash, on the other side of the world, blowing up people whose names we may never know. “Do not follow the majority” became “do not let a bare majority decide to kill;” I wonder what the sages would say about letting software make life-or-death decisions without much human input at all? Arguments can be made pro or con, but the question cannot be avoided.

Shabbat Shalom,


The views expressed are my own and do not reflect that of Vassar Brothers Medical Center or Health-Quest.

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Mishpatim: Learning the Ways of Kindness

Copyright 2014 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Mishpatim

“When you see the ass of your enemy lying under its burden and would refrain from raising it, you must nevertheless raise it with him.”  (Shemot/ Exodus 23:5)

Shalom to one and all!

I have been out on family leave due to the arrival of new baby Goldschmidt (name to be announced soon) in early December. I’m glad to be back now with a little tidbit of Torah commentary for this week’s portion, Mishpatim, which by its very name suggests that the major theme is laws for a just society. (Mishpat is a just law; a shofet is a judge, same root.)

Yet the verse above is hard to justify in terms of setting out the rules for a fair society- why should I care if somebody else’s animal is struggling? Do I really have a positive duty to help anybody with this sort of problem? There might be no end to it!

That makes sense from the perspective of American law, which is often concerned with rights and liberty (but not enough, I’d say). Jewish law, on the other hands, is often more concerned with our obligations towards others than our right to be left alone, and in this case, the law is very specifically aimed at improving the moral character of those who would obey it. Note that the law specifies seeing the animal of your “enemy,” and yet you must help him. (We might also note that you’re helping the animal be more comfortable too, and surely the donkey doesn’t have a share in your conflict with its owner!)

Sefer HaHinnuch, the medieval textbook of the commandments, suggests that the reason for the law is to “train our souls in the way of kindness.” This is very profound: we might not ever decide, without the nudging of a mitzvah, to help another on the street (even more so someone we don’t like) but doing the action changes us from within. It isn’t always kindness that brings about the action- it is the action that brings about kindness, for when we see even our enemy as another person, struggling with their animals and work and responsibilities and hassles just as we do, how can we fail to soften our souls and become more compassionate? Yet we would never see them in their full humanity without the intimate encounter of rendering assistance. By pushing us to interact with people right where they are, we learn to be people of mercy, for we may see even our enemy as a full human being, created in the Divine Image, and as deserving of love as ourselves.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Mishpatim: Helping One’s Enemy

Copyright 2012 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Mishpatim

“When you encounter your enemy’s ox or ass wandering, you must take it back to him. When you see the ass of your enemy lying under its burden and would refrain from raising it, you must nevertheless raise it with him.”(Shmot/ Exodus 23:4-5)

Good afternoon!

Last week, we discussed the mitzvah of honoring one’s parents, and concluded with the proposition that emotions follow actions. That is, in the case of honoring parents, for example, our emotions of gratitude for life often follow the specific actions that Judaism sets out as ways to fulfill the mitzvah. This week, we see an even clearer example of this idea, in the verses above.

The rabbis note that the phrase translated as “take it back to him” in the first verse involves the doubling of the verb “to return.” This is characteristic of Biblical Hebrew, and merely implies emphasis, but the ancient sages interpret the repetition to teach that even if one found an enemy’s animal far away, or even if it was injured, you still had to take it back to him.

Why go to such trouble to help somebody you don’t even like, or who may have done you real harm in the past? Because emotions follow actions- by helping your enemy, you may learn to feel compassion for him. Perhaps in the course of exerting oneself to reloading or returning the animal, one would find the grudge or negativity becoming irrelevant as the bonds of common humanity were reasserted.  Alternatively, doing something nice for somebody may cause the recipient’s heart to turn, opening up a window for reconciliation.

I mentioned Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler last week but let’s offer a bit more of his thought on the topic of giving and caring:

“If one were only to reflect that a person comes to love the one to
whom he gives, he would realise that the only reason the other person
seems a stranger to him is because he has not yet given to him; he has
not yet taken the trouble to show him friendly concern. If I give to
someone, I feel close to him; I have a share in his being. It follows
that if I were to start bestowing good upon everyone with whom I come
into contact, I would soon feel that they are all my relatives, all my
loved ones. I now have a share in them all; my being has extended into
all of them.”                                                                       (from the collection Strive for Truth, vol I, p. 130.)

Rabbi Dessler proposes that we give first and the love comes after, because a piece of our own being has flowed towards the other. We return the donkey but perhaps gain a human connection, even where there was enmity. This is why actions grounded inhesed, loving-kindness, are mitzvot, commandments and not reliant on the right feelings to be there first. If we waited till we felt like helping our enemy, it might never happen, but if we help without waiting, perhaps we will find there are fewer foes in the world.

Shabbat Shalom,


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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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Shekalim: Reparing the House

Copyright Neal Joseph Loevinger 2010

Torah Portion: Mishpatim.

Shabbat Shekalim.

The Torah portion Mishpatim is concerned with the laws of a fair and just society; we also have a special Shabbat, called Shekalim, which recalls the collection of money for the upkeep of the ancient Temple. More on Shabbat Shekalim here.

Good afternoon! Hope them’s that are digging out are dug out from the snowstorm, and if you’re not dug out, it’s a perfect time to learn a bit of Torah.

This week we read special passages, a concluding Torah reading and a special haftarah, for the occasion called Shabbat Shekalim, which recalls the collection of a half-shekel from each Israelite for the upkeep of the Temple. The announcement came a month or so before the tax was actually due, and that’s why we read these passages just before the Hebrew month of Adar.

The haftarah for Shekalim tells the story of King Yehoash, who came to the throne at a young age and then set up a system whereby the priests in the Temple would pay for the repair of the property out of a general donation fund. After a while, the king realized that the priests weren’t actually doing the repairs on the building as they should, so he ordered that the funds for the Temple and for the priests should be kept separate, so that they would not be tempted to keep more for their own sustenance and pay out less for the Temple maintenance. Yes, there is actually Biblical precedent for the idea of a synagogue Building Fund!

There’s another lesson here, related to our theme of prayer and what makes it happen (or not.) When the house of prayer is in disrepair- physically, financially, organizationally, or spiritually- somebody has to take the initiative to fix it. Synagogues don’t magically repair themselves, and those in charge may not see all the problems. In our Torah reading, every single Israelite gave a half-shekel for the ancient Temple, indicating that the responsibility for the house of prayer belonged to the entire community, not just the leadership class- which, as the haftarah points out, sometimes gets a little too comfortable with the status quo.

Shabbat Shekalim poses the question: who repairs the house of God? The answer is: while a few people may have specific duties, everybody has the responsibility, and no class of people is exempt from contributing. That, in turn, reminds us that our house of prayer is not truly built unless it is a house of prayer for all people, representing every part of our kehillah, or sacred community. When we collect spiritual gifts from every soul, our house is truly renewed.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Mishpatim: Separating and Mindfulness

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Mishpatim

It’s almost Super Bowl Sunday, and after that, Super
Tuesday, and yet before either of these events, oh my goodness do we
have a super Torah portion to study together. That parshah is
“Mishpatim,” which means “laws,” and for the most part, the portion is
concerned with laws for a just and fair society. There are, however, a
few laws concerning ritual and religious practice, including laws
about agricultural products:

“The choicest of the first fruits of your soil you shall bring to the
house of the Lord, your God. You shall not cook a kid in its mother’s
milk.” (Shmot/Exodus 23:19)

Many who learn Torah even occasionally know that the traditional
separation of meat and milk products derives from “you shall not cook
a kid in its mother’s milk,” but it’s less well known that:

1) The first time this idea appears it seems to be connected to
agricultural thanksgiving in the Temple, and

2) “you shall not cook a kid in its mother’s milk” actually appears
three separate times in the Torah: as above, plus Shmot 34:26 and
D’varim/Deutoronomy 14:21.

Because “do not cook a kid in its mother’s milk” appears three times
in the Torah, the ancient rabbis assumed that each appearance of the
text taught something new and different from the other, similar
verses. Thus, we learn that not only are we not to eat milk and meat
together, but we are also not to cook milk and meat together, nor
derive any benefit from a mixture of milk and meat. To put it another
way, each time this idea appears it teaches something new: don’t eat
the cheeseburger, don’t cook the cheeseburger, and don’t profit from
the cheeseburger (and never mind the Pepsi or the chips.)

The actual practice of separating milk and meat is a skill learned and
applied over time, but for today, suffice it to say that milk and meat
foods are typically prepared and served on separate utensils, and a
waiting period is also observed between eating dairy and meat,
especially if the meat comes first. (That’s a longer discussion we’ll
have another time.)

OK, I can just feel many among the loyal readers of rabbineal-list
thinking “uh, WHY exactly does the Torah prohibit this? I mean, what’s
so bad about cheeseburgers?” (Especially if you get them from the
Olympia Cafe . . . )

Much has been written to answer this question, and below you’ll find
links to some good discussions of the classic interpretation.
Unfortunately, the Torah itself does not tell us why we should not
cook a kid in its mother’s milk, nor does the Torah itself offer the
understanding that this is a wider concept. Yet along with the typical
interpretations having to do with consciousness of our blessings, or
practicing holiness in our eating, or kindness to animals, I
personally see this traditional practice as connected to the ancient
Temple offerings- after all, both bringing “first fruits” and not
cooking the kid are taught in what became (in post-Biblical scriptural
enumeration) one verse.

To me, the idea of bringing “first fruits” and other offerings to the
ancient Temple was a ritual enactment of a basic spiritual
orientation: the world and its blessings do not belong to us, but
rather, we are tenants upon the land and thus when we take for
ourselves, we do so with humility and restraint. Bringing the
agricultural offerings was a practice of living humbly upon the Earth-
we are not to take and consume everything all the time, but rather we
should be ever more aware that our needs are less than our wants.

Separating milk and meat teaches the same truth: that we are not put
on this earth merely to consume, nor only for fleeting pleasures, but
to serve. A practice of restraint and mindfulness in our eating
teaches us to make other things more important- and they are!
Cheeseburgers are not a moral evil, but they’re also not the most
important thing in life, and Judaism says: if you can inculcate
awareness and self-limiting in your eating and other ways of
consuming, you can find within yourselves greater reservoirs of
gratitude and giving. Seen this way, the dietary disciplines of
Judaism are practical meditations: the way we eat reflects our values,
and orients our souls.

Shabbat Shalom,


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