Sunday, February 03, 2008

Mishpatim (Mitzvot)

For more teachings on this parasha, see the archives to this blog below, at February 2006.

“These are the laws that you shall place before them…”

Many years ago, when I still lived in the United States, I would occasionally daven on Shabbat morning at the Havurat Shalom in Boston—the very first of the havurot, an informal community of religious seekers—where the custom was to have a “Quaker meeting style” Torah reading, in which the actual reading was followed with an open discussion on whatever people wanted to say on the parasha. On several such occasions on Shabbat Mishpatim, I remember members of the group saying something like: “What a disappointment, what a ‘downer’ that must have been! After the mystical ecstasy and vision of the ineffable at Sinai, they woke up the next morning to hear some dusty old man mumbling, ‘These are the laws you must do.’”

Leaving aside the 1960’s idiom, the question itself is a significant one: What is the role, in a religion of a transcendent, mysterious, unknowable deity, of civil law? And why does it have such a central place? For such is the subject matter of Mishpatim: the majority of the 53 mitzvot in this portion (second in number only to Ki Teitsei) deal with mundane, down-to-earth matters: property damage, responsibility of bailees (those charged with safeguarding another’s property), monetary fines for stealing livestock or for seducing a virgin, how to treat surety on loans, etc.

On a certain level, the issue raised here has to do with the tension—very much present today in the Jewish world—between “spirituality” and halakhah. We live in an age of intense interest among certain circles in Kabbalah, in meditative prayer, in Hasidism, in various kinds of esoteric teachings—at times to the exclusion of the more mundane, down-to-earth, “humdrum” aspects of Judaism.

An interesting passage in the Talmud (Sukkah 28a) celebrating the encyclopedic breadth of knowledge of Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai concludes by stating that he had mastered “a great thing and a small thing. ‘A great thing’ refers to Ma’aseh Merkavah [teachings related to the Divine Chariot]. ‘A small thing’ refers to the premises of Abbaye and Ravvah.” Rambam, in discussing this passage (Hil. Yesodei ha-Torah 4.12), asks the obvious question: Why, if halakhah is so central to the Jewish religious enterprise, is it called “a small thing”? And if so, why does it nevertheless take precedence over learning the secrets of the universe, of metaphysics or Divine science?

He suggests three answers to this question. First, that they “settle” a person’s mind (i.e., their study sharpens and trains the intellect); second, that they contribute to the welfare of society (he calls it “the great good which the Holy One has infused down so as to settle the world); and third, that it is accessible to all, and not only to those of great intellectual capacity. He adds that, even though the various branches of esoteric wisdom are the deepest subjects a person can study, “a person should not engage in them until he has filled his belly with meat and bread—that is, to study what is permitted and forbidden” (or, in our idiom, Shas and poskim). This last sentence is one of the sources of the idea that one should not study Kabbalah until one has gained a certain maturity (some say, age 40).

To elaborate upon Rambam’s second point: the central goal of the entire Torah is the creation of a good, just society based upon principles of goodness, justice, and righteousness; the sanctification of human life, on both the individual and the collective level. Hence, the laws of Mishpatim, which teach how to do so (along with their enlargement and elaboration in the Oral Torah, in the three tractates beginning iwth the word “Bava” and elsewhere) are the logical sequel to the Sinai epiphany: they serve as a spelling out in detail of the great, overarching principles of the Ten Commandments, in terms of everyday human life. (This idea is also one of the central themes of Rav Soloveitchik’s masterful essay, Halakhic Man).

This idea was expressed in characteristically pungent fashion by the Rebbe of Kotzk in connection with a verse in this week’s parasha: “And you shall be holy people” ואנשי קדש תהיון לי (Exod 22:30)—the holiness for which one strives should be menshliche heiligkeit, “a human sort of holiness.” That is, one ought not to seek holiness that is an escape from the human condition, through fasting, celibacy, withdrawal from society, or various physical afflictions. Rather, holiness must be a natural part of the entire nexus of relationships and involvements with one’s fellow man that are part and parcel of being human.

The goal declared at the end of the Alenu prayer— לתקן עולם במלכות שדי, “to perfect the world under the kingship of the Almighty”—means just this; not some heavenly, other-worldly kingdom, not the return to some mythical golden age, but simply: the creation of a decent, orderly society, based upon a code of mutual responsibility, and balancing the conflicting needs and interests of different individuals and groups in a manner that embodies Tzedek, a God-motivated sense of fairness and justice.

Returning to the specifics of our parasha: as it is impossible to treat all 63 mitzvot in one or two pages, I will focus upon the opening verse, that is in some sense emblematic of them all: the creation of courts, of a system of judges and magistrates that provide a focus for the rule of law, of objective and just standards that govern society. Many of these laws deal specifically with private property, such as responsibility for damages and losses of various sorts as expressed in monetary terms.

As it is nearly Shabbat I cannot elaborate upon this point, but it seems clear that the concept of property, of theft (גזל, גזילה, חמס) as an almost archetypal form of crime (note the description of the sin of the generation of the Flood in Gen 6:11, 13), are basic concepts of the Torah. Attempts at creating utopian, property-less societies have by and large been less than successful, whether because of the tyranny necessary to sustain them on a large scale, as in the Soviet Union; through gradual privatization, as in Israel’s kibbutz movement; or through collapse from within, as in the short-lived hippie communes of the 1960’s. This does not mean that the Torah champions capitalism as we know it today as the ideal system: far from it! (See the laws in Leviticus 25, which we will discuss come Parshat Behar, which mitigate towards equal distribution of property.) However, it recognizes the need for an orderly and recognized respect for property as part of the proper governance of any society.


V. “Behold the Master of the World; every creature declares His greatness and His sovereignty”

The Fifth Principle states that one should worship God alone. At first blush, this seems a restatement of the prohibition of idolatry, which we have already discussed in the body of this week’s study. When I first started this project, I wondered why Rambam felt it necessary to state this as a separate principle. Is it not implied, on the hand, by the Second Principle, that of God’s unity, which implies the rejection of multiple divinities; and, on the other hand, by the Eighth Principle, the Divine nature of Torah, which ipso facto implies the obligation to fulfill all the mitzvot, including the prohibition of idolatry (which, not surprisingly, is regarded by Rambam as the very first of the negative commandments)?

But on further reflection, it would seem that Rambam’s main concern here is to exclude, not only the worship of “other” or “alien” gods, as in the basic formulation of idolatry, but also to preclude obeisance to intermediaries, of secondary divinities or demigods, or of beings or objects that one knows to be secondary to Him—the sun, moon, stars, constellations, or anything else honored as an indirect way of honoring God.

For example: Hinduism is known for having a veritable riot of gods in their pantheon, but more sophisticated believers, steeped in the more philosophical Upanishads, know that all these are ultimately manifestations of the one supreme god, Krishna. This, too, is prohibited by the Judaic conception. When my oldest daughter returned from her six-month journey to India, she told me of a conversation she had with a teacher in a village somewhere near the Punjab, who articulated the above idea, to which she retorted that, like all Jews, she was taught the basic concept of unity at an early age (and, in fact, she began reciting the Shema before she could even read).

This principle also carries a polemical thrust against other forms of shittuf, of worship of other entities together with the true god: for example, the trinitarian theology of Christianity, which holds that God is both three and one, and that how this is logically possible is somehow a mystery; or various forms of Gnosticism or Dualism, which see this world as the field for a battle between the competing forces of good and evil, of God and the Devil (a view implicit, interestingly, in many of the writings of the recently deceased American-Jewish writer Norman Mailer).

This principle also implies the positive idea that one should and indeed must serve God—that is, it is not enough to eschew idols and believe passively in the Creator, something like the “watchmaker” concept of God embraced by the Deists (first formulated by Descartes, and held inter alia by many key figures of the American Revolution, such as Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine), but that one must actively engage in His service. (I have discussed the importance of Divine service, avodah, in Rambam’s overall world-view in my essay on Sefer ha-Mitzvot [HY V: Behar-Behukotai (=Rambam)], in which I noted the centrality of Avodah as an organizing principle in his list of the 613 mitzvot, specifically in the positive mitzvot.)

VI. “The abundance of His prophecy, God gave to His chosen people, the people of His glory.”

At this point we turn to the second group of mitzvot, those related to prophecy and revelation—a group which, even if by now somewhat belatedly, I felt it appropriate to bring in tandem with the account of Ma’amad Har Sinai in Parshat Yitro. If, in the first five principles, relating to the nature of God, we see Maimonides the philosopher, and neo-Aristotelianism ideas and formulations are never too far away, here (and in the final group, dealing with God’s Providence and His involvement in human history) we encounter Rambam the Jew, the traditional teacher of Torah to his faith community.

The Sixth Principle, then, is the belief in prophecy. This is a necessary, logical predicate to the Revelation of the Torah. The giving of the Torah through Moses, though a unique and foundational event, is the supreme exemplification of the more general principle of prophecy. This is seen clearly in the order Rambam chooses: prophecy in general; belief in the prophecy of Moshe Rabbenu, who differed from all other prophets in major respects; belief in the Torah; and, finally, its unchangeable nature.

This group of principles raises far more problems for modernist thinkers than do those of the first group. While atheism and agnosticism are of course options in modern thought (in a way that Rambam, like other ancient and medieval thinkers, could not have imagined), once one accepts belief in God, His unity, incorporeality, and eternity are more-or-less self-evident. The first five principles allow room for a Deist, ”Watchmaker” conception of a God who created the world, but since then has been uninvolved in the world and in life as we know it. But revelation is a different matter.

Thus, Neil Gillman, leading theologian of the Conservative movement, in his Sacred Fragments, raises the problem that the ideas of prophecy and revelation are problematic if not scandalous to many modern people—not only because of biblical criticism, which raises questions about the integrity, Mosaic antiquity, and unity of the biblical text; but more importantly, because they violate our sense of the universe as being governed by iron-clad laws of nature. How can God, who must be incorporeal, Who transcends the physical universe, speak—meaning, cause he vibration of air waves at certain frequency—if He has no body and thus no mouth! (Thus goes the argument) And indeed, these four principles imply, indeed, presuppose that the partition separating the Divine realm from the human realm is permeable. (This is expressed poetically in Habad teachings on the Exodus and the Revelation: whereas the realms of the Divine and the human are usually connected through a long chain of cause and effect, here there is an immediate, direct breakthrough of the veil.)

It must be stressed again that there are also dogmatic elements in Rambam. Indeed, Rambam is filled with internal tensions: between his philosophy and his passionate feeling as a religious person. (see, e.g., Hilkhot Teshuvah 10. The problem of whom Rambam “really” was—philosopher or religious leader—is perhaps best discussed, and in a very readable way, in David Hartman’s Maimonides: Torah and Philosophic Quest [JPS, 1976].) His belief in Sinai is perhaps the strongest dogmatic or “a-rational,” non-philosophical element in his system.

Rambam’s conception of prophecy involves a certain combination of the human or natural, and the super-natural: That is, the prophet is a person who has reached a high level through long, arduous work on his intellectual, ethical, and spiritual qualities, preparing his own intellect for contact with “the Active Intellect.” It is only following this natural process of preparation that prophecy rests upon him, as a kind of Divine gift—and mission (see the full presentation of the Principles in his Introduction to Perek Helek, and in Hilkhot Yesodei ha-Torah, Ch. 7).

As for Gillman’s objection that prophecy and/or revelation violate the order of nature, one can only respond through the language of faith. We do not understand these events, how they occurred and what happened. The Zohar and the midrashim try to capture it, but they can only do so through the use of images, suggestive of the ineffable nature of the Sinai event: “and all the people saw the voices…” The same holds true for Elisha seeing Elijah ascend heavenwards in a chariot of fire, or Manoah and his wife seeing the angel ascending in the fire of their own homely altar —and realizing that he was not an ordinary human being. But what it means, and what “really” happened, are beyond our comprehension.


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