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God Lays Down the Law  

 

a.k.a. Parashat Mishpatim 

 

Moses drew near to God, who explained the details of the law. The people were forbidden from making idols of silver and gold. They were obliged to make burnt offerings of their animals to God wherever they went. A Hebrew slave should be set free in his seventh year of service. When a man sells his daughter into slavery, he should do so with the understanding that she will one day marry the master or his son, and if not must be repurchased by her family. 

One who commits premeditated murder should be put to death. One who hits his father or mother, or curses them, should be put to death. Kidnapping too, is punishable by death. One who injures another should pay for the time lost while recuperating. A man who kills a slave should be punished. However, a man who injures his own slave should not pay because the time lost is his own.

If men fight and while fighting hit a pregnant woman who miscarries then the one who hit her should pay a fine to her husband. If the woman dies, then the one who injured her should be killed. The compensation rule is an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a hand for a hand, a wound for a wound, a burn for a burn.

If a thief breaks in by night and is killed, then the killer is not guilty. But if the killing happens after sunrise, then it is considered as murder.

If a man seduces a virgin, he must marry her. If her father is unwilling, he must pay the customary marriage present. No witch should be allowed to live. Anyone who has sex with an animal must die. Anyone who makes sacrifices to an idol must die. No stranger may be abused or oppressed because the people were strangers themselves in Egypt. If any widow or orphan is harmed, God Himself will kill the offender. No interest may be charged on money lent to the poor. No insult may be directed at God or any leader of the people. The firstborn son of every family belongs to God, as does the firstborn of the oxen and sheep. No meat may be eaten that has been torn open by animals; it must be thrown to the dogs.

The bearing of false witness is forbidden, as is partiality for any reason. No man may join a crowd assembled for the purpose of committing an evil. Everyone must uphold and protect the property rights of others, even when the other party is an enemy. The innocent and the righteous must not be harmed. Bribes should never be accepted.

Fields must be ploughed for six years but be left fallow in the seventh. People must work six days and rest on the seventh. These rest days are to restore slaves, strangers and beasts of burden. Feasts in God’s honour are to be held three times a year – the feast of unleavened bread, the harvest festival when the first fruits are gathered and the festival of ingathering at year’s end (Pesach, Sukkot and Shavuot).  People should not cook a young animal in the milk of its mother.

God’s angel will lead the people to land occupied by the Amorites, Hittites, Canaanites and others. God will destroy these peoples gradually and the people of Israel must smash their idols. God promises to give the people land from the Red Sea to the sea of the Philistines and from the wilderness to the Euphrates. No covenant may be joined with any other tribe or with their gods.

When Moses had told the people these rules, they agreed to obey them. Moses then wrote down the rules and presided over the offering of sacrifices to God. After this he read the covenant to the people who reaffirmed their acceptance of its precepts. He sprinkled blood from the offerings over the people to consecrate the agreement.

After this Moses, Aaron and 70 elders went up and saw God, who appeared above a pavement of sapphires. Then they ate and drank in the presence of God.

After that, God told Moses to come up the mountain and receive the tablets of stone on which the law had been written. Moses went up and a cloud covered the mountain for six days. On the seventh day God, resplendent in his glory, called Moses from the cloud and Moses entered the cloud. He remained on the mountain for 40 days and nights.

Commentary on the 12th parsha (portion of the Torah) 

The Torah consists of the five books of Moses, the first part of the Old Testament.

 

To get to grips with this parsha, our Supermaven, Sigmund Albert Spinoza, interviews Methuselah Solomon (an Ancient Elder). Supermaven is a modern philosopher who is trying to understand Judaism and how we got where we are. He will do this every week by investigating the Old Testament.

 

SAS: Boy, oh boy! Your God is nothing if not punctilious in his setting out the rules for his chosen society. Which, of course, is another way of saying that men wrote these rules after lengthy discussions based on cultural norms, precedent, careful and wise consideration of the maintenance of the people and its faith, and then ascribed them to God. 

MS: You are wrong, as usual. You might think that the details of law are too small for God to attend to but they aren’t. Law is a precise thing and it makes perfect sense for God to spell out the way we must live one with another.  

SAS: Actually, I agree with you on that point. If God exists, it’s certainly his responsibility to tell us what he actually means when he hands down lofty principles like “You must not kill” and “Honour your father and your mother”. The Ten Commandments are very grand but they need an explanatory gloss. I admire God’s legal fastidiousness. But, really, Methuselah, you must admit that God here is far from a transcendent being on high – these are man-made regulations in man-made terminology.  This law is culturally specific, and context-based. That’s why so many aspects of it seem so primitive to us today. 

MS: Which aspects?  

SAS: Firstly, there are laws governing the selling of a daughter into slavery. Could God countenance something so cruel or barbaric? Actually, animal sacrifice is barbaric too …   

MS:  Don’t people kill and eat animals? 

SAS: Yes, we do, but we don’t pretend that such actions are pleasing to God and have a religious significance.  

MS: Oh, so it’s acceptable to just kill animals willy-nilly without any sense of sacrifice or thankfulness? I think that’s barbaric. After all, we kill animals as part of our religious devotion and we thank God for the food. We also set aside part of what we have as a sacrifice, showing our gratitude for its creation and provision. We don’t merely engage in mass slaughter of animals and eat meat that is mass-packaged for wide-scale consumption. I cannot admire such disrespect. At least we constantly remind ourselves that God gave us dominion over the beasts and that we should give thanks to him.  

SAS: Alright, I concede that. But selling daughters into slavery? God should forbid this practice, not frame laws governing it.  

MS:  It was a practice of the time and God is making sure that as long as such a practice exists, it should be properly regulated. In any event, the idea is to find the girl a good home through marriage. 

SAS: So you put her on trial as a slave to see if she’s compliant enough and obedient enough for the family! This is hardly the basis for a fair and equal relationship. And imagine the emotional trauma of being rejected and sent home at a price! 

MS: These are the way things are done in order to maintain the stability of the society. Everyone is taken care of. 

SAS: I doubt women are. Are they included in the term, “man” that appears in these laws?  Or are these laws for men and their conduct, whilst women are regarded as their chattels? 

MS: It is men upon whom the burden of obedience principally falls. In a patriarchal society, men have more responsibilities and therefore are more frequently punished. 

SAS: Why don’t I think women will be grateful to hear that? Let’s change the subject, though. I don’t think you can justify putting someone to death for striking a father or mother, or for cursing them. While deplorable, such acts of disrespect are unworthy of the death penalty.  

MS: The relationship between parents and children is the essence of our culture and our belief. For us, such a lack of love and respect is unpardonable. However, you are not allowing for the exercise of mercy and judgment. We have a court of law, the Beth Din, and our elders decide cases carefully on their merits.  

SAS: Fair enough. But now tell me this – why is causing miscarriage only punished with a fine? Is this not equivalent to murder? 

MS: How could you apply the same rules to the living and the unborn? We value life above all things. Our law states that we are always to save the mother before the unborn child. 

SAS: I think there might be a few ethical thinkers who would disagree with you on your definition of human life, but never mind that now.  Let’s examine this a bit further, in your own terms. What I want to know is why the life of a slave is valued less than that of a free man whose death would be avenged with another death? Are not all people equal in the sight of God? 

MS: You mean slaves? Of course they are not equal. They belong to their masters and are therefore property. The law requires slaves to be well treated and does not condone their killing, but you can’t expect the same punishment to be stipulated if one person has murdered a free man and another a slave. The magnitude of the sin and the debt are not equal in these cases.  

SAS:  I think that’s a disgusting law if it’s to be considered universally applicable. You might be able to justify it in its time and place, although I wouldn’t. In the light of it, I treat with extreme suspicion the claim that the Sabbath is there for the benefit of slaves and beasts of burden. No, my friend, the Sabbath is to give them a rest so that they don’t collapse and you’ll get more work out of them. Your compassion is implausible.   

MS: Any other comments before I go? Your reductionism irritates me. 

SAS: Yes, actually. These people are in the desert, right? They have recently fled from Egypt where they were slaves, am I correct? 

MS: What’s your point? 

SAS: I should have thought it was obvious. They celebrate their liberation from bondage. Now they too have slaves. Isn’t the most obvious moral point that slavery is an abomination? Isn’t human life and freedom the most important single issue in the whole story of the exodus? 

MS: You do not understand. In this social structure, slaves are well and fairly treated. Everyone is taken care of. The rule of law is maintained fairly. 

SAS: Come on! Owning slaves, not cooking calves in their mothers’ milk, putting witches to death – it’s a strange mixture of the primitive and the judicial wisdom of aeons. 

MS: You lack the sensitivity and intelligence to understand why this is a culture bound by a set of rules that ensure its robustness and continuity.  

SAS: One more question, please. Does God’s promised slaughter of the Amorites, Hittites and Canaanites ever worry you?  

MS:  No. They worship false gods and they stand in the way of our special destiny here on earth. We are, after all, only obeying the will of God and fulfilling His purpose when we take the land that is rightfully ours. 

SAS: That is a profoundly inhuman view of the world. I thought human life was the most important consideration of all.  

MS: We deserve land too. Some tribes will lose out and disappear. That’s how history works. 

SAS: The important thing is to have the right god on your side. 

MS: There is only one. And, yes, He is on ours. 

History 

 

The Parsha we have just read comes from the five books of Moses, the Torah. The dialogues between Sigmund Albert Spinoza and Methuselah Solomon are about the meaning of the Parsha.

 

What we know about Jewish History, however, is based in fact, and on historical records. 

 

If you’d like to know more about the real history of our extended Jewish family, read on.

 

Baruch Spinoza and Haskalah

 

The Haskalah, or Jewish Enlightenment, dates roughly from the 1770s to the 1880s, but its intellectual forerunner, Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677), lived well before the movement gathered steam in Europe. Spinoza was a Dutch philosopher and rationalist whose work helped lay the foundation for the Enlightenment and for the discipline of biblical criticism. Spinoza, a Jew of Sephardic descent, became unpopular within his own community as a result of his critical attitude towards Talmud. Heretically, he proposed that the universe was comprised of a unique, single substance that he described as Deus sive Natura – God or nature. God, in Spinoza’s conception, was closely identified with the material world and was not the personal, anthropomorphic God of biblical theism. This pantheistic conception of God was anathema to the local Jewish community; it issued him with a writ of excommunication in 1656, which was never lifted. It is extremely uncommon in Jewish tradition for writs of excommunication to be issued and this shows the seriousness of the threat that Spinoza posed for the Judaic tradition and theology. 

 

Spinoza’s posthumous manuscript, Ethics, and some of his earlier writing, shows him to be an ethical relativist – nothing is good or bad in and of itself, but our thinking, arising from our cultural experience, makes it so. Spinoza’s writings about the workings of the human mind anticipate issues taken up in contemporary psychology and many view him as a man way ahead of his time. 

 

The questioning spirit of Spinoza and a concomitant rejection of tradition for its own sake are both evident in the Haskalah – the Jewish Enlightenment. The term comes from the Hebrew word sekhel – “reason” – and the movement was based on the perceived need for rational thought and action within a world that was embracing a scientific view of knowledge and truth. Followers of the Haskalah were known as Maskilim

 

The impetus for this intellectual awakening came largely from the “Court Jews” of Austria and Germany who moved in high social circles and provided many forms of assistance to local potentates, in turn receiving protection from these rulers. Jews frequenting society’s upper-class salons found less and less reason to conform to traditional religious customs. They encouraged fellow Jews to respect and embrace secular culture and to find their place outside their ghettos and within the cultured world of European society. 

 

Moses Mendelssohn (1726-1789) showed his fellow Jews the way. He was careful not to be viewed as a latter-day Spinoza. He maintained contact with believing Jews and he attempted no reformulations of the God concept. While promoting the importance of secular education, Mendelssohn never envisaged the assimilation of Jews into their various European societies. His proposal was that the Jewish religion and Jewish identity should remain inviolate. A Jew who enjoyed the protection of Frederick the Great of Prussia, Mendelssohn wrote in German and produced a German translation of the Torah as well as a grammatical commentary. As Shira Schoenberg puts it, he “represented Judaism as a non-dogmatic, rational faith that is open to modernity and change.” 

 

Moses Mendelssohn saw law, not revelation, as the crux of Judaism. He remained skeptical of the idea of a chosen people and of the Promised Land. According to Paul Johnson, in his book A History of The Jews, Mendelssohn viewed Judaism as an “appropriate creed for a particular people, which should be privately practised in as rational a manner as possible”.  

 

Mendelssohn’s scholarly openness and invitation to dialogue impressed his non-Jewish contemporaries. Many who had viewed Jews as strange, unwelcome outsiders attained a far more enlightened view of Jewish people and their culture through Mendelssohn’s presentation of Jewish life and thought.  

 

While Mendelssohn called Jews to embrace a secular education, he also championed an educated study of Jewish history and a revival of Hebrew scholarship and writing. 

 

Along with this revival of Hebrew came a devaluation of Yiddish. Mendelssohn viewed Yiddish as a silly language devoid of proper linguistic rules. Such a devaluation did not mean that writing in Yiddish ceased during the Haskalah, although it tended to be used for less lofty themes. The resurgence of Hebrew went hand in glove with resurgence in nationalism. The challenge of anti-Semitism was never far away and this awakened a desire to resist oppression and champion Jewish identity. The basis for Jewish resurgence would be self-effort, not messianic expectation. 

 

One of the key shifts during the Haskalah, then, was a growing skepticism regarding the coming of the Messiah. Messianic hope was all very well, but it was far more important for Jews to make inroads into the secular world and establish ways of living that were sustainable until the messiah eventually turned up.  

 

Naturally enough, the making of a common cause with the secular, non-Jewish world led to internal changes within the Jewish religion. The Reform movement set out to bring Judaism more into line with the rational practices of the times. 

 

One notable “reform” was that men and women were allowed to sit together during religious services. Traditional prayers were reworded, choirs and organ music were introduced and the wearing of hats was not compulsory – top hats became the norm in some fashionable congregations! Along with changes in ritual came significant theological shifts. Most significant, perhaps, was the teaching that afflictions suffered by the Jews were not the result of an eternal plan or of divine punishment for apostasy but the result of inhumanity and various historical forces.    

  

By the 1840s the Haskalah had reached Russia and Lithuania. In 1863 a society promoting culture among Russian Jews was established. 

 

According to Schoenberg, the Haskalah ended in Western Europe as a result of assimilation, widespread migration to the USA and the rise of Zionism. In Russia, anti-Semitism led to a breakdown in reciprocal relations with secular society. 

 

The legacy of the Haskalah is multi-faceted. Perhaps its most notable and enduring achievement was its emphasis on education – both secular and Jewish. Thanks to the efforts of the Maskilim, Jews took their secular learning to levels at which they could contribute significantly to society at large, and dominate disciplines and discourse in many fields. Concomitantly, there was an upsurge in Jewish learning per se, and a heightened awareness of Jewish people’s place in the world, their identity, their rights and their aspirations as a people as well as in their role as global citizens. 

      

Here follows a discussion on this historical segment by the Father, Chaya and Ben. 

 

BEN: So, the Haskalah brought us into the modern world?

DAD: It did, but not without a certain backlash from the traditionalists. Spinoza, to this day, is regarded by observant Jews as outside our people.

BEN: That’s absurd. All these years later, what he said is certainly rather more respectful and conservative than what many Jewish intellectuals say regularly and publicly about the bible and the Jewish religious tradition.

DAD: Yes, but as I always remind you we need to look at historical events in their context.

BEN: Sure, I get that. But surely they should revoke his excommunication in the 21st century? Jews play a noticeable role in the mainstream modern world and Spinoza was an early forerunner of that engagement.

CHAYA: But you should remember that he challenged the basis of everything that the Jewish tradition at that time stood for. They had to fight to keep themselves intact and unassailable.

DAD: Interestingly, the case of Spinoza showed that there was more than one thread of thought in Jewish philosophy. And, as history has shown, it is possible for all of those threads to exist, sometimes intertwined in an uncomfortable way, and survive.

BEN: The seeds of different kinds of thinking were always present in Jewish philosophy. And many of them have taken root in mainstream intellectual life, where they have become strong and blossomed. It’s a strange phenomenon. Why are there so many Jews in intellectual life?

DAD: That’s a question that has puzzled many thinkers. You should read Paul Johnson’s book, A History of The Jews. He has a particular interest in this question. He is not a Jew himself, but a religious Catholic. However, his fascination with Jews and Jewish intellectuals has contributed enormously to our understanding of this question.

CHAYA: I think it’s astonishing that since the Haskalah Jews have taken positions across the spectrum of belief from God to atheism, and from cultural absolutism to extreme relativism. Who are the Jews? What do the Jews think?

BEN: Well, you can’t answer that question. You’d have to define Judaism in a particular way, and who are we to say what it is or isn’t?

DAD: Spoken like a relativist! Spinoza has influenced you, whether you realize it or not.

CHAYA: But really, it’s very difficult to make statements about what the Jews believe about faith, politics, culture and everything important.

DAD: I think that’s why we have survived as a group. We challenge one another all the time. I think that questioning everything is the inheritance that Spinoza has passed on to us. He may not have been the first, and he certainly is not the last.

 

Sayings 

 

Every Shabbat we read five short sayings that express, with typically Jewish wit and humour, insightful reflections on this life of ours. 

 

Here are tonight’s sayings:

·        When a man has luck, even his ox calves. 

  • It is better to know nothing than to learn nothing.
  • Never trust people who tell you all their troubles but keep from you all their joys.
  • Whenever a treaty of peace is signed, God is present (Nachman of Bratslav)
  • The Jews always complained, kvetching about false gods, and erected the biggest false God, Jehovah, in the middle of western civilization. (Allan Ginsberg)

Never trust people who tell you all their troubles but keep from you all their joys

Celebration of Great Lives 

 

Every Friday night we celebrate the achievements of our Jewish family in contributing to changing the world for the better and having an extraordinary impact on those around them. 

 

Eugenio Calo (1905-1943) 

 

Eugenio Calo was born in Pisa to an old Jewish family. As a Jewish victim of fascist Italy during the Second World War, Eugenio had lost his workshop, his home, and his family. He became an Italian partisan and was second in command of Pio Borri, a partisan division that fought the Germans in the Casentino Mountains in Tuscany. In this role he acquired a reputation as a man of uncommon bravery and humanity. He paid for his heroism with his life – he was caught, tortured and finally murdered by Germans soldiers. In 1947 he was posthumously awarded the Gold Medal for Military Valour, Italy’s highest honour for military heroism.

 


HOW TO SING THE SONGS
ADON OLAM WORDS
Adon Olam David Solid Gould & The Temple Rockers
ALL MEN ARE BROTHERS
ALLE BRUDER SONG
ALLE BRIDER SONG
AL KOL ELEH WORDS
AL KOL ELEH
BASHANA words
BASHANA SONG
BEI MIR BIST DU SHEYN
BEI MIR BIST DU SCHEYN SONG
BMBDS song
CHIRIBIM WORDS
CHIRIBIM Song
DAYENU WORDS
DAYENU SONG ENGLISH
DAYENU SONG
DONNA DONNA
DONNA DONNA SONG
HALLELUYA
HALELUJA KARAOKE
HATIKVA
HATIKVA SONG
HATIKVA SONG
DAYENU
HATIKVA WORDS
HATIKVA SONG 1
HAVA NAGILA WORDS
HAVA NAGILA SONG
HAVA NAGILA KARAOKE
HAVEINU SHALOM ALEICHEM
HEVENU SHALOM ALEICHEM WORDS
HEVENU SHALOM ALECHEM SONG
HINEH MA TOV WORDS
JERUSALEM THE GOLD WORDS
JERUSALEM THE GOLD KARAOKE IVRIT
JERUSALEM THE GOLD SONG
JERUSALEM THE GOLD JARAOKE
MAYIM MAYIM WORDS
MAYIM MAYIM DANCE
OIF'N PRIPITSCHOK song
OSE SHALOM
OSE SHALOM SONG
PAPI ROS'N
PAPIROS'N SONG
PARTISAN SONG 1
PARTISAN SONG
PARTISAN SONG MUSIC
RABBI ELIMELEKH
RABBI ELIMELEKH SONG
AS DER REBE SINGT
AS DER REBBE SINGT LEONARD COHEN
AS DER REBBE SINGT SONG
RAISINS WITH ALMONDS WORDS
SIMANTOV U MAZELTOV WORDS
SIMAN TOV MUSIC
MAZELTOV CLARINET
TUMBALALAIKA WORDS
TUMBALALAIKA MUSIC
TUMBALALAIKA MUSIC
TZENA TZENA
TZENA TZENA
TZENA TZENA 4
TZENA TZENA The Weavers
TZENA TZENA WORDS
ALLE BRIDER KLEZMATICS
ALLE BRIDER KLEZMATICS
HATIKVA STREISAND
HATIKVA STREISAND
BIM BAM SHABBAT SHALOM FOR KIDS
BIM BAM SHABBAT SHALOM FOR KIDS
YO EN ESTANDO - SEPHARDIC
ELIYAHU SEPHARDIC
SEPHARDIC SONG
SEPHARDIC SONG 3
Sholem Aleichem Susan Allen
Shalom Aleichem Susan Allen
OTHER VERSIONS OF SONGS
DUVID CROCKET WORDS
DUVID CROCKET MICKEY KATZ
MODERN PASSOVER SONGS
This will help you find yourself]