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Friday, February 17, 2012

Parshat Mishpatim: Revelation and Revolution

This week's Torah portion is Mishpatim (Exodus/Shemot 21:1 – 24:18). Following on the heels of the giving of the Ten Commandments (well, Ten Statements, to be exact), Mishpatim continues the Sinai narrative by listing the various additional ordinances decreed by God to Moses, which he is then meant to communicate to the people. 

According to ancient rabbinic understanding, mishpatim are the laws that might easily be obeyed without being explicitely commanded. In contemporary parlance, they are 'no-brainers.’ 

It makes sense that we should treat other people kindly, not murder and not insult one's parents (yes, that is included here as a follow-up to honoring your parents). On one level it might seem superfluous to even mention these laws, if they are based on common sense. However, we all know too well that common sense does not always prevail. Therefore, a reminder never hurts. However, there is much more to this parashah than simply reminding us to obey the laws that come naturally.

 In her discussion of the parashah/portion, Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg (The Particulars of Rapture, Doubleday, 2001) analyzes the interpretation of Rashi (12th century France), which he bases on the rabbinic principle that the Torah has no necessary chronological order. Therefore, Rashi writes, these mishpatim were actually given prior to the Ten Commandments! He bases this on his interpretation of certain Hebrew words, but most importantly relates this to the response of the people to Moses after he relays the laws to them: "we shall do and we shall hear.” According to Zornberg (and Rashi) the people are responding to the narration of the laws that have existed from Creation until that moment as well as to the laws that are about to be given on Sinai. They will obey (do) the laws that exist and they are prepared to hear the laws that God is about to give them, as well as everything that will come after.

Two weeks ago, in my commentary on the splitting (or, tearing apart) of the Sea of Reeds, I discussed the need for us to make radical paradigm restructurings in our lives. These restructurings are a necessary part of the death/growth cycle that is life, whether we are talking about individuals, communities, nations or the world. In Zornberg's analysis, she writes that Rashi's reading of this text represents "a moment of existential meeting with God that is a precondition of Revelation. This is an experience of rupture: all previous history comes to an end, is written down, is read aloud and affirmed.” 

Furthermore, what Zornberg believes the people are affirming at this just moment before Sinai is what we would categorize as “natural law, by which all human societies protect and preserve themselves. In committing themselves to the Covenant [that has yet to be given], the people recognize that the force of these laws lies not in their pragmatic, conventional nature, but in the fact that they are the will of God. Moses narrates to them once again the old laws, the old story from Creation to the present, but in a newly sacralized form. Natural law is newly infused with a sense of relationship to God, the Creator, who desires these modes of behavior.” Based on this interpretation, the 'natural laws' are not simply 'no-brainers' based on pragmatism and instinct, but an expression of God's will. Perhaps this is why they indeed seem so natural and instinctual.

In the personal and political realms, especially in today’s polarized and extreme climate, much of the rhetoric from the extreme religious right concerning so many issues of civil law (but all of which seems to relate to human nature, especially sexuality) views these issues as reflecting natural, or what they see as “God's will.” We see this most explicitly in the debates over same sex marriage, abortion rights, contraception, and so on. In these debates of civil law, it seems that many on the extreme "religious" right believe that they know what God's will is, and that it is this will upon which we should base our legal system. They proclaim that homosexuality, in general, same-sex marriage, abortion, birth control, etc are against the will of God and the laws of nature. We were created to procreate and that is the reason for marriage and for sexual relationships. Therefore, homosexuality, birth control and abortion (though I realize that there are some people who only object to one or two of this trio) are simply wrong.

This argument has many flaws. Based on this logic one would have to question whether people unable to bear children should be allowed to marry or whether infertility should be a reasonable grounds for divorce. Though Judaism certainly emphasizes procreation (it is the first commandment in the Torah) it also accepts the fact that marriage is still viable and meaningful even when the couple has no children. Love and relationship is just as important according to many classical commentators. The argument that homosexuality is an aberration based on the "fact" that it does not occur elsewhere in nature has also been put to rest by recent research which shows that homosexual relationships do exist among other animals.But, this is really a red herring that takes us from what is the fundamental issue.  For none of us should have to defend ourselves against such spurious arguments. To do so only gives the critiques a validity that they do not deserve. 

Even the general argument is based on a faulty assumption (by some) that what the gay and lesbian community is seeking is “permission to marry” or looking for "special rights".  This is not the case. Rather, what is being sought is simply the acknowledgment all human beings have the same right to create sanctified relationships based on love and respect, and that all of these committed, sanctified relationships should be recognized and acknowledged as such.

However, the larger issue here, is that certain politicians believe that our laws should be based on their religious values. Of course, I expect that any politician who views themselves as “religious” or a “person of faith” will use their religious beliefs and faith to help them make their decisions. Yet, in the end religious law should not be the basis for civil law. As a matter of fact, as Judaism teaches, there are times when civil law directly contradicts religious law. In those cases, unless the civil law were to force one to break one of the more serious commandments, the law of the land supersedes religious law. But I digress (though only slightly!).

In Zornberg's analysis, she speaks of infusing natural law with a sense of relationship with God. It is our relationship with God, however one chooses to define it, which allows us to redefine our understanding of natural law. However, one must never forget that this understanding is based on the will of God, and NOT on the whim of humankind.

In the Middle Ages, it was believed that being left-handed was against human nature and a sign of immorality or even demonic possession. Only a little more than a century ago, religious forces in the United States were proclaiming that slavery was part of God's will and the divine order. Luckily, that was a long time ago! However, it was not that long ago that inter-racial marriage was viewed as contrary to God’s will and against natural law. The change in this perception occurred not simply because the laws were changed. Rather, the laws were changed because people recognized that this was not "the will of God" as they understood God.

It is true that both the removal of anti-miscegenation laws from our legal system and the eventual removal of laws stating that marriage is only between two people of the opposite sex are political and legal issues. It is also true that we have separation of government and religion in our country. However, as a person with a deep belief in God I cannot help but frame this issue in religious terms, even if the legal decisions must ultimately be based on the concepts of freedom, equality and civil rights for all human beings.

As the debate continues on all of these social, cultural and human issues, perhaps it is time to allow
a “rupture” to take place, as Zornberg calls it, so that we can receive our Revelation. It is time for us the American people, and all of humanity, to reach a new understanding of natural law that is based on what we believe to be the will of a Power greater than ourselves. The splitting of the Reed Sea allowed our ancestors to be redeemed, but it was the Revelation at Sinai that gave them the responsibilities that allowed them to be truly free.

In so many ways, concerning these and other important social and human issues, the sea has been split and we are safely on the other side (or at least some of us are). However, without the giving and
acceptance of Revelation of laws, freedom cannot truly be achieved and the people will eventually return to being enslaved. And this Revelation cannot occur until we first accept the new understanding of "natural law" derived from our encounter with the Divine, an encounter that takes place each time we interact with and relate to another human being.

The history that we have been given has been “written down and affirmed” even though we do not agree with, nor are we proud of, every chapter in the book. Now the time has come to accept the new definitions that will prepare us for this new Revelation. This revelation is one not based on the
chosen status of any single belief or group of people, but on the core Torah belief that we are all created b'tzelem elohim/in the image of God. We all deserve to have the same rights and we all must accept the same responsibilities.

I believe that this is the essence of natural law for us. It is a reality that we see when we look in the eyes of another human being and see their soul, and not their race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, personal beliefs or practices.

We have seen numerous minorities and oppressed groups come to this understanding of natural law and then fight to help others to realize and accept it as well. Now the paradigm is shifting yet again for so many of us who have been denied full rights. The sea has split. The rupture has occurred. The people are gathered at the foot of the mountain, which is now beginning to smoke and tremble.

The time has come to write our new history based on the understanding and acceptance of what has been true of humanity since the dawn of creation. We are all one. We are all the same and yet each totally unique. That is our beauty. Once we recognize this then we shall be ready to receive our
Revelation. May this soon, happen in our country and throughout the world.

Shabbat Shalom.


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