Thursday, February 8, 2024

Torah Commentary on Mishpatim: The Rules/Laws, Code of Hammurabi, and the Relevance of Religion

To me, this parashah is probably one of the most complex parts of Torah to relate to in modern times. I also think it's what drives a lot of people away from religion  it's outdated, right!?

It's all the regulations about slaves and stuff that seems inhumane and absurd in modern times. Many argue that the Torah is unjust in even creating regulations regarding "slaves" because of what the Jews went through in Egypt. Likewise, our modern construct of slavery is one of abuse, neglect, and racism. The interesting thing about Torah slavery, though, is that it is entirely unlike the slavery of Egypt and the U.S. South.

Slavery in the Torah is often an individual selling their services to repay a debt or to work off bankruptcy. It isn't buying and selling individuals off a butcher's block on a dock somewhere. This is important to note. Torah begins this parashah, following the Decalogue, with the stipulations of slavery for an important  and modern applicable — reason. Having just gotten out of slavery, it's necessary to create rules and regulations for keeping slaves to ensure that the treatment of Egypt is never touched again. It's like a "do unto others as you would have liked to have been done unto you" setup. Anyhow, this is applicable in modern times as a reflection of not wishing ill upon those in a situation which you have presently experienced, I think.

Does Eye for an Eye Really Mean an Eye for an Eye?

Let me be (not) the first to say I love Hammurabi and his codes. Love may not be the right word, but the concept is brilliant, and for those who get all sauced up over history, it's absolutely tickling. The Codes of Hammurabi shaped much of the law in those early years based on the talion, or the basic "eye for an eye" principle. A lot of people come back to this Biblical principle when discussing the death penalty or other punishment. In essence, it seems to make some kind of sense. Why shouldn't the person feel the same pain/anguish that their murderer felt? But luckily, there was wising up, and (most) people realized that in no way does it equate to the original crime. Oftentimes, murderers are conscienceless and will never be able to feel that pain or sorrow.

The Sages agree that people deeply misunderstand "eye for an eye," for the very reason just mentioned. Maimonides said, 
"There never was any Rabbi, from the time of Moses ... who ruled, based on 'eye for an eye,' that he who blinds another should himself be blinded." 
Instead, the principle is a graphic way of explaining that punishment should not be too lenient or harsh, but should fit the crime. Torah has ways with words, it's a beautifully written manuscript and oftentimes says a lot of things it does not necessarily literally intend to say.

I find myself distraught at times over the literal nature of which things are interpreted. Yes, I preach that poetry should not be overly interpreted and that accessibility in writing is one of the most profound problems of writers who must flaunt some earth-shattering style. But Torah was composed so very, very long ago. Words change. Etymology is the key to understanding evolution in texts, darn't. Euphemism and analogy should not be taken for granted or go unused when understanding Torah.

Jews Control All the World's Money ... Right?

Say hello to Ex. 22:24, aka the laws of usury! I take particular interest in this topic, because I once wrote extensively about it for one of my classes, though I forget which. Interestingly, in most Christian texts, this is typically cited as Ex. 22:25. Bizarre, yes? I haven't run into any discrepancies as such before.

My interest in this passage relates to the whole (mistaken) idea that Jews are in control of all the world's finances. Most are unaware that Jews were essentially forced into money lending in the Middle Ages after the Catholic Church outlawed money lending because of this very passage.

 The catch, of course, was that the text says that you shouldn't charge interest to "my people" or sometimes translates as "to your brethren." That, you see, is how the Church figured that it was okay for the Jews to take on the task ... so Catholics were still allowed to borrow, and it wasn't against the law, because Jews were NOT their "brethren." It was a loophole that the Church was well aware of, and in a way it set up the Israelites for years of victimization. Additionally, it became one of the few things Jews were allowed to do at the time, because so many professions and trades were outlawed for them.

So every time someone makes a snide remark about how Jews are incredibly wealthy or run the world's finances, I bring up the fact that it was the Catholic Church who opened this gateway for the Jews. Don't blame the Jews!

Are Religions Like Judaism Still Relevant in 2024?

I read somewhere that many of Torah's laws are like an onion -- there are many layers to the meaning. As time passes, a layer peels away and we must return to the law to seek out it's spiritual meaning so that we do not simply discard it as outdated and irrelevant. Here's an article over at that discusses the different ways we interpret Torah, especially in relation to this parshah.

I'm a firm believer that every rule and law in Torah is completely applicable today, if not from a literal standpoint then from a metaphorical and spiritual standpoint. I highly doubt G-d would reach down and throw out a bunch of essential rules for life, only to have them become outdated in a couple thousand years. Adaptation is, perhaps, a test of faith, intelligence, understanding, and acceptance.

Another great article, "Is Religion Still Relevant?" by Yossy Goldman, is pretty high-quality. It runs with the idea that "everything has changed, but it's stayed the same."
The very same issues dealt with in the Bible -- sibling rivalry, jealous partners, and even murder -- are still the stuff of newspaper headlines today. So what else is new? Has anything changed? Yes, today we have astronauts and space stations and laser beams and laptops, but the basic issues and choices human beings must face remain identical. Once upon a time the question was do I hit him with my club or slice him up with my sword. Today the question is do I call up the nuclear submarines or send in the guided missiles? ...

... Torah is truth and truth is eternal. Scenarios come and go. Lifestyles change with the geography. The storylines are different but the gut level issues are all too familiar. If we ever needed religion -- or in our language, Torah -- we need it equally today and maybe more so. May we continue to find moral guidance and clarity in the eternal truths of our holy and eternal Torah. Amen.
So whenever you think back to the mitzvot or Torah and think, "Psshaw, oxen and slaves are so old school" take another look. Read the commentaries, explore the Torah, examine the Sages, talk to Rashi and Maimonides because there is definitely more to "an eye for an eye" than meets the eye.

(Sorry, had to end like that. It made me giggly silently, hah!)

Editor's note: This was published in February 2007 and has been updated for accuracy and relevance.