Torah Blog


A blog of Torah thoughts, poems and other random odds 'n' sods. For tag cloud click here.
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Entries in holiness (1)


Holy Laws...?

I find myself at a bit of a loss when faced with mishpatim.
I open up the Torah as a work for spiritual guidance and am faced with all these laws, including ones referring to archaic societal structures. How would you feel if you bought a book entitled Get in Touch With Your Soul and opened it up to find half of it was tort law from thirteenth century France? How can we connect to this? And why do we even need these laws when we have up-to-date democratic systems?

The Netivot Shalom - the Slonimer - writes that mishpatim falls in the middle of the giving of the Ten Commandments (see Chapter 24 of Shemot where the Har Sinai narrative appears to continue) for a reason. To teach us that these laws are just as holy as the Ten Commandments. But how? I can't accept that everything a rabbi or a dayan says is God's will (any more than lots of other things said by lots of other people).

This is the challenge for me - where is God in these legalities?

Ultimately the legal and the religious are not separated in Jewish thought. According to Menachem Elon, the Halacha itself does not recognise the concept of special religious laws that are different from other legal norms. In Talmudic discussions, the same theoretical argumentation, terminology and modes of interpretation are applied to both civil law and also the laws of Shabbat, the sacrifices and ritual purity and impurity. The laws of agency apply in the same way to issues of hekdesh and terumah as they do to marriage and divorce.


There are some very interesting Jewish legal procedures that bring God into the law as a partner or witness. There is an interesting procedure called “mi shepara”. This is used in a case where someone might change his or her mind after making a verbal contract, something halachically impossible to enforce when there were no witnesses to the verbal commitment. So they called in God as the punisher. The Rambam tells us in Hilchot Mechirah of his Mishneh Torah that if someone has paid for his goods but not yet received them, if either the seller or buyer retract at that point, they have not acted in a Jewish fashion and are obligated to receive the curse of “Mi Sheparah, He who punished”… and how is the curse administered? A curse is pronounced against him in a court of law, saying “He who punished the generation of the flood and the generation of the confusion of tongues at Babel and the people of Sodom and Gemorrah and the Egyptians who were drowned in the sea, may He exact punishment from him who does not stand by his word.”

There are two ways of looking at this. One is the anthropological way, to suggest that the rabbis utilised people’s fear and superstitions in order to provide some kind of deterrent. The other, inside-spiritual point of view, is that God is being called in to help with issues that are beyond the powers of the Bet Din. That a people who genuinely believe in an interventionist God, in a God who wants (whatever it means to say that God wants) for there to be morality in the world, as demonstrated by what He did to the people of the flood, Sodom and Gemorrah etc. will not even stand by when a simple farmer reneges on a verbal contract.

There are verses in Parshat Mishpatim that also overtly bring God into the picture. I'm not going to spoon-feed you - see if you can find them, and look at the Rashi there.

The message is that God is watching with Divine Providence and has arranged everything perfectly. The challenge is - how to apply this kind of thinking to all laws? and to make them speak to us spiritually, not just ethically?

V'idach zil gmor