God Lays Down the Law
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
MS: These are the way things are
done in order to maintain the stability of the society. Everyone is taken care
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
MS: It is men upon whom the burden
of obedience principally falls. In a patriarchal society, men have more responsibilities and therefore are more
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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, show
s 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Every Shabbat we read five
short sayings that express, with typically Jewish wit and humour, insightful reflections on this life of
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
- Whenever a treaty of peace is signed, God is present (Nachman of
- 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
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 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.