February 2018, Parshat Mishpatim

Dear friends,

This week’s Parsha, Parshat Mishpatim, is crammed full with laws which in fact begins with the words ‘and these are the laws’. There is so much rich fodder available for the intellectually inquisitive it is hard to know what to focus our attention on. We could make ourselves feel good by concentrating on the incredible laws designed to keep the judicial process pure, which in its time would have been absolutely revolutionary and still today is but a distant dream for many around the world.

Actually, for most of the last 3000 years there is hardly a civilisation comparable in its attitudes to justice. Even in Europe, the birthplace of the Enlightenment and the liberal ideals we hold so dear, the idea that all are equal before the law is no more than a few hundred years old. Even at the point of the American and French Revolutions the fact that society had such distinct classes meant that equality before the law was impossible. The monarch could do whatever he or she wanted and was entirely above the law. And the aristocracy always trumped the peasant.

Today, in fact, most of the world functions by a set of rules that contradict the Torah’s direction. Between China, Russia, and India, we have over a quarter of the world’s population and in each of these places there is not even an ideal of equality. Of course, neither Africa, Asia, nor the Middle East, are likely candidates, either in the present or in the past, for being bastions of pure and independent justice systems.

Though there is plenty ‘feel good’ components in this Parsha, for example the good Samaritan laws, the environmental laws, and laws that mandate a social welfare safety net and more; we must discuss the more difficult aspects of some laws mentioned.

The Parsha begins with the laws governing slavery. Right there we have a problem. The Torah is the word of God, so do we understand this to mean that God sanctions slavery? The Southern slave-owners in America used these laws to argue precisely that. In exploring this particular point, a number of questions arise.

First, if God indeed sanctions slavery, how can the modern reader – who rightfully finds such a concept an absolute abomination and the greatest perversion of our ideals of the inalienable rights of all humans – make sense of that?

Second, the Torah seems to endorse a two-tiered ranking even within the class of slaves. There are Jewish slaves who must be treated with kid gloves. They may not be abused in any which way and must be treated more or less as respected members of the household. And of course their term of slavery is limited to six years. On the other hand, there are the non-Jewish slaves. They may in fact be oppressed in their work. No defined limits are set for them, neither in time nor in scope. Some opinions in the Talmud even go so far as to say that freeing a non-Jewish slave is a transgression. In other words, it’s not only that they don’t have a right to freedom, they positively have a duty of remaining slaves for all eternity! So how then can we possibly make sense of this seemingly racist system within an already deeply troubling institution of slavery?

Third, there are some rabbonim who espouse that the truth of the Torah means the laws set out in it are the final product of an objective truth for all places and all times. The only response they have to these troubling questions is that it is God’s will which we mere mortals dare not try and understand. When it comes to the most important questions like how can we make sense of the Torah directing us to behave so immorally, such a response more than boggles the mind. How can it be suggested that God can dictate immorality yet still be deemed supremely moral? The two ideas are by definition mutually exclusive. So it follows that the tactic of taking no responsibility for the upshot of one’s theology is as nonsensical as it is inherently immoral.

Fortunately, there is an altogether different approach to what it means to believe in the truth of the Torah which not only adequately answers all the above questions, but also leaves us with immense inspiration for the future. This is not a new approach, in fact it is as old as Jewish theology itself. The approach I am referring to was championed by no less than the greatest Jewish scholar of all time, the Rambam.

In his legal work, the Mishne Torah, the Rambam dedicates 9 chapters enunciating the different laws of slavery. In relation to the Jewish slave he picks up where the Talmud left off turning the Jewish slave into the master with so many rights granted. In relation to the non-Jewish slave he dutifully spells out all their lack of rights. For example, “A master may tell his Canaanite slave: ‘Work for me, but I will not provide you with sustenance’, and the slave must instead, go and beg from door to door and derive his sustenance from charity.” Similarly, “It is permissible to have a Canaanite slave perform excruciating labour.” (Mishneh Torah, Sefer Kinyan, Avadim 9:7/8)

What is phenomenal though is how the Rambam follows the above line with the following, which in fact wraps up the whole topic of slaves:

“Although this is the law, the attribute of piety and the way of wisdom is for a person to be merciful and to pursue justice, not to make his slaves carry a heavy yoke, nor cause them distress. He should allow them to partake of all the food and drink he serves and provide food for the slave before partaking of their own meals…one should speak to them gently, and listen to their claims.” (Mishneh Torah, Sefer Kinyan, Avadim 9:8)

And so the question becomes Why? Why should we behave in this upright, moral, and compassionate manner? Because the Torah instructs us to do so numerous times!

In the words of Job “Have I ever shunned justice for my slave and maid-servant when they quarrelled with me…Did not He who made me in the belly make him?! Was it not the One who prepared us equally in the womb?!” (Job 31:13)

In the words of the Psalmist “His mercies are upon all of His works.” (Psalms 145:19)

And in the Torah itself whoever shows mercy to others “He will show you mercy, and be merciful upon you and multiply you.” (Deuteronomy 13:18)

And the Rambam concludes that cruelty and arrogance are found only among idol-worshippers. By contrast, the Jews who were granted the goodness of the Torah and commanded to observe righteous statutes and judgments, are merciful to all. (Mishneh Torah, Sefer Kinyan, Avadim 9:8)

Here we have the greatest codifier of Jewish law, after just having said that the law does allow you to be cruel to your non-Jewish slave, finishing by saying that to behave like that is to behave like the pagan idolaters not like the Torah’s righteous commandment to be merciful to all! How are we to reconcile the two? Does the Torah allow us to be cruel or not?

Dealing in such a primitive world where slavery was the norm and their treatment was like that of property, the Torah begins the long human moral journey towards abolition. How? By saying all slaves must be freed on Shabbat, and killing your slave warrants the death penalty. Both unheard of restrictions on one’s right to their property.
But there is more. Human beings’ empathy tends to comes in layers. We care most about ourselves, then our families, after which our closest friends, then our wider acquaintances, our society, and finally our Facebook friends.
If the Torah is going to stamp out the immorality of slavery it must necessarily begin with the people who are closest to the centre of the onion first. The lowest hanging fruit in the process of spiritual enlightenment that sees all humans as having inalienable rights are our co-religionists and our landsman, whom we naturally feel greater empathy for.
But that is only the beginning of the journey. It is the stepping stone to realising that actually all humans are created in the image of God. Therefore, enslaving another, let alone brutally, is an affront to the whole project of the Torah, which is about spiritual, intellectual, moral, and emotional progress.

May we all courageously take the next step in our spiritual journey and stop blaming God for our inadequacies.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Shneur