Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Spirituality of Civil Law (Parashat Mishpatim/Exodus 21:1-24:18

What do laws about personal injury, personal damages, holes in the ground, damages due to negligence with fire, paying employees on time, borrowing items from a friend or lending money have to do with Judaism? After all, isn’t Judaism – like all other religions – all about ritual observances, holiday and lifecycle celebrations and prayer services in a house of worship? Why would a religious book like the Torah contain legislation in matters of what society typically calls “civil law”?

The answer is that Judaism is not a religion, but a way of life. The Torah is not a collection of “Jewish rituals,” rather it’s a guide on how to live life – everywhere. The 613 commandments in the Torah are as much concerned with how life is conducted in the work place as with how services are conducted in the synagogue. In fact, prior to legislating any laws regarding houses of worship, sacred spaces, High Priests and sacrifices or prayers, the Torah spends a great amount of time legislating how to set up a fair system of civil laws that will help resolve disputes, protect vulnerable members of society and create a society that puts social justice as it’s highest value.

In last week’s Torah portion, the Jewish people stood at the foot of Mount Sinai and heard God’s voice speak directly to them. In ten powerful utterances (popularly known as “The Ten Commandments”), God outlined a vision for how a Jewish society would look and act. As the sound and light show at Mount Sinai came to a close, the Jewish people – completely frightened and overwhelmed by having heard the Divine voice – asked Moses “You speak with us, but let not God speak directly to us, lest we die.” The Torah then describes “The people stood far off, but Moses drew near into the thick darkness where God was.” It’s at this point that this week’s Torah portion begins, with God speaking “face to face” with Moses on Mount Sinai.

“And these are the rules (Mishpatim) that you shall set before them.” With this verse, God begins to legislate the detailed version of the Ten Commandments. The word Mishpatim refers to civil ordinances, and by beginning with these particular laws, God sends a very powerful message about what it means to be a truly “religious” community. Most people looking to create a “religious community” would begin by building a house of worship. In the Torah, God sees things differently. As the Jewish people are in the initial stages of building their own “religious community,” civil laws governing relationships between people are legislated before the laws on building a house of worship. Courts and judges come before tabernacles and High Priests. The message is that the first definition of being “religious” is how one behaves at work, in business, and how one treats his/her fellow human being. God knows that it’s much easier to behave “religiously” inside a temple or synagogue. The true challenge is maintaining that religiosity in the workplace and at home. It’s less of a challenge to perform the ritual commandment of prayer than it is to make sure that your employee is paid fair wages, and that the payment is made on time.
Contemporary society is engaged in a renewed “search for spirituality.” Judaism has joined in that search. A recent Jewish periodical devoted an entire issue to “Orthodoxy and Spirituality,” implying, perhaps, that they are independent of each other. This is probably due to the misguided and limited understanding of the term “spirituality” as almost exclusively a form of prayer or meditation. Is there “spirituality” in solving a dispute in court? Can one experience God when standing in the presence of judges who are charged with carrying out justice?

In reference to God, the Book of Psalms teaches: “Righteousness (Tzedek) and justice  (Mishpat) are the base of Your throne” (Psalms 89:15). On this verse, the 13th century Sephardic Talmudist Rabbeinu Yonah comments: “Whoever upholds justice (Mishpat) upholds God’s throne, and whoever perverts justice defiles God’s throne.”

Spirituality is “Mishpatim,” that is, the creation and maintenance of a just society that brings the glory of God’s throne into civil life.