February 2017, Parshat Mishpatim

Dear friends,

This weeks’ Parshat Mishpatim includes a remarkable number of laws, by far the most of any other portion in the Torah. It is in fact the reason for its name Mishpatim, which means Laws.

It is one that is especially dear to my heart. First, anyone who knows me, knows I love rules. Secondly, interpretation from this week’s Parsha played itself out in the most public manner very recently with most significant implications.

At the Royal Commission into Child Sexual Abuses relating to the crimes in a Jewish school in Melbourne, there were several bombshells that hit our community that lead to a number of questions being asked.

Among those questions: why did some community leaders, responsible for the welfare of the children entrusted to them, not go directly to the police when they discovered horrific stories of paedophilia? And why, after three decades of inaction, when victims finally found the courage to come forward, did some individuals employ every means to try and silence them?

It all came down to the Law of Mesirah which has its origins in the first five words of this weeks’ Parsha ‘And these are the laws which you shall place before them’. The Talmud (Gittin 88b) states, ‘before them- but not before gentiles.’ As such, the Talmud understands that there is a prohibition against using non-Jewish courts. In the Code of Jewish Law one who goes to a non-Jewish court is called an ‘evildoer, as if he has blasphemed, and as if he has raised a hand against the Torah of Moses’. Since, of course, the punishment for blasphemy, as anyone who has watched the Life of Brian knows, is death, this is very serious indeed.

This law of Mesirah according to the Royal Commission explained why no one went to the police even though they knew they were dealing with paedophiles. And it was also why some were so hell-bent on silencing the victims.

In all the media surrounding this issue I believe an opportunity to make a much larger point as been missed.

The point could have been made about it appearing that some rabbis were saying that since the Torah has in it all the truth you need to know about everything, going to non-Jewish courts is equivalent to blasphemy because it suggests that sources outside the Torah can inform us of a truth. It follows, perhaps, that there was the suggestion that since we currently have the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, how can we do anything other than look inwards? Going to the police? What do they know?!

It is of course most inconvenient that ‘truth’ itself requires interpretation. After all, today, going to the rabbi for reporting paedophilia is thankfully out of vogue. The very notion of Mesirah “does not apply in the context of the criminal law of western democracies such as Australia” according to one of the leading Halachic authorities, Rabbi Moshe Gutnick (quoted from an article on J-Wire in March 2016). Now I’m not privy to the thoughts that led to that conclusion. But what can be deduced from this ruling, is there can be scope for us, as a community, to go back and interpret something in accordance with our contemporary experience and understanding of what is right.

This does not in any way delegitimise the authenticity of the Torah.  It simply highlights that so much depends on interpretation and there are times when circumstances lead us to going back, re-examining and sometimes changing the interpretation. Though we cannot undo the past, there is certainly a lesson for us that we must be more open to acknowledge our limitations. And we do so by remaining open to external points of view because they can inform and enlighten us.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Shneur