Engagement in an Era of Cynicism (Ex. 21:1-24:18)

Creating a law code, the Israelites faced issues that seem strikingly familiar today

The New Hampshire primary has come and gone and with it the official opening of national election season in the United States, an event that has an impact on not only the residents of this country, but those of the whole world. In its best sense, this election--in fact any democratic process--is an opportunity for a society to reflect upon its values, its leadership, and its basic understanding of right and wrong.

This week's Torah portion, called Mishpatim in Hebrew, raises those same issues of societal values for a community in the distant past, perhaps for the first time in recorded history. Mishpatim is an extensive law code (the Hebrew word "mishpatim" literally means "laws"). The portion contains a series of rules and theories about appropriate human behavior, as the ancient Hebrews understood it.

Archaeologists have uncovered earlier codes, the laws of Hamurabi or Eshnuna, but these are authoritarian decrees handed down by a powerful lord and enforced by his guards and army.

The community of Jews at Mount Sinai is in a different situation. Moses, their human leader, has at best a fairly tenuous hold on their loyalty. There are no guards, no armies, to enforce obedience. The laws of the Torah will need to stand on communal consensus based on group morality and participation. In many ways the Hebrews of the wilderness face a political situation far more similar to our own than to that of the totalitarian world they fled.


The social regulations of this portion engage basic categories of human interaction. There is criminal law: punishments for murder, kidnap, sexual battery, assault, and theft. There is commercial law about torts, damages, agency, negligence, and property. There are environmental laws about crop management and ritual laws about various ceremonies.

Many of this portion's laws are obsolete for our world; the Israelite culture accepted indentured servitude as a normal condition of life, and several ordinances deal with the treatment of bondspeople. However, a surprising number of the Torah's regulations are with us still, and some evoke considerable controversy even in our day.

For example, this Torah portion engages the issue of when human life begins. One has only to listen to various Republican candidates to know that we are not as clear about this matter as is the Torah. In Exodus, the penalty for causing a fetal miscarriage is monetary--a property crime--while in the same instance, if the pregnant woman is accidentally killed, the penalty is for the crime of negligent homicide. The Torah thus teaches that human life does not begin at conception.

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