On November 26, 1936, Rav Ben Zion Meir Hai Uziel delivered a lecture to a large gathering of rabbis in Jerusalem. Titled The Seat of the Rabbinate, Rav Uziel’s words were delivered as an introduction to that day’s elections for the Council of the Chief Rabbinate of the Land of Israel. Speaking to rabbis who would potentially join him as part of the Land of Israel’s national rabbinic leadership, Rav Uziel articulated a vision for what he felt were the priorities of the rabbinate in the Yishuv in Erets Yisrael (which eventually became the modern-day State of Israel):
When it comes to public and national matters, the issue of Mishpat (The Torah’s Civil Laws) is a weighty and burdensome responsibility on a rabbi, for it is these matters that establish the path of life towards success or disaster, peace or dispute. God thus commanded us: “Execute the judgment of truth and peace in your gates” (Zecharia 8:16).
When Rav Uziel used the term “mishpat” to describe the Torah’s civil laws, what was he referring to?
“And these are the rules (Mishpatim) that you shall set before them.” With this opening verse from Parashat Mishpatim, God begins to legislate the detailed version of the Torah’s system of civil legislation. The word Mishpatim refers to civil laws and ordinances, and by making these laws the first set of legislation following the Aseret Hadibrot (Ten Commandments) at Mount Sinai, God sends a very powerful message about how the Jewish people should go about building 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 (Bein Adam L’Havero) are legislated before the laws on building a house of worship. Batei Din (courts) come before the Mishkan (Tabernacle) and Dayanim (judges) precede Kohanim (Priests). Parashat Mishpatim deals in matters that don’t seem “religious or spiritual” to most people -- personal injury, damages due to negligence, paying employees on time, borrowing items or lending money, to name just a few – but these actually form the core of how the Torah envisions the definition and governance of a Jewish religious society. God knows that it’s much easier to behave “religiously” within the comfortable confines of a synagogue. The true challenge is maintaining that religiosity in the workplace and at home, which is the domain of Parashat Mishpatim.
In keeping with this core value, when he wrote his Mispetei Uziel halakhic responsa, Rav Uziel devoted a special introduction to the volume on Hoshen Mishpat (the section of the Shulhan Arukh that deals with Mishpatim):
Amongst all of the various disciplines and halakhot, the Torah of Mishpatim -- which legislates financial laws -- distinguishes itself, as it guides and directs the way of life for all areas and aspects of society. This body of laws reflects the unique character of Judaism, whose glorious splendor is manifest through Tsdedakah (Charity) and Mishpat (Justice), which are the legacy of Judaism’s founding father (Abraham), about whom God said: “I have singled him out so that he will command his children and his household after him, that they will keep God’s way, doing Tsedakah (Charity) and Mishpat (Justice)” (Genesis 18:19).
Rav Uziel’s vision of a Mishpatim-centered society was inspired by a long and rich tradition of sources that emphasized the centrality of this vision in Judaism.
The Book of Psalms teaches: “Tsedek and Mishpat are the base of God’s 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.”
The largest and most complex section of the Talmud is Seder Nezikin (The Order of Damages), which contains the expanded halakhic/legal details of the civil laws/mitsvot found in Parashat Mishpatim. In one of the most popularly studied tractates in Seder Nezikin – Tractate Baba Kamma – we are taught: “Rav Yehudah says: He who wishes to be a pious person (hasid) should seek to fulfill the halakhot in Seder Nezikin” (Baba Kamma 30:a).
Three times a day in our liturgy, we pray in the Amidah for the restoration of our Jewish legal system, and we refer to God as Melekh Ohev Tsedakah u-Mishpat – The King who loves righteousness and justice.
Rav Uziel’s innovation was less in the concept of articulating the centrality of Mishpatim, and more in elevating this to the highest priority for rabbis in the Land of Israel. His vision was for rabbis to fully engage themselves in the domain of Mishpatim, and by doing so, they would help shape the moral and ethical character of the emerging Jewish State, and potentially bring unity to the Jewish people:
As you approach the seat of the rabbinate that you will sit upon after your election, take to heart that the full domain of mishpat -- including all of its problems and issues -- has been placed in your hands, and it will be upon you -- through trustworthiness, love honor and admiration -- to bring the entire nation closer to the values of Jewish Civil Law. Mishpat, Tsedek and Din Emet L’Amito-- judgment, righteousness and the truthful execution of the law to its fullest extent of truth -- serve as the foundations for the unity of our nation.
Sadly, Rav Uziel's vision is a far cry from today's Chief Rabbinate. His vision for a moral, ethical and Mishpatim-based rabbinic leadership is the need of the hour in the State of Israel today.