Jewish Journal

Divine Judgment

Parshat Mishpatim (Exodus 21:1-24:18)

by Rabbi Steven Weil

Posted on Jan. 30, 2003 at 7:00 pm

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, known as the Rav to his many thousands of students, takes exception to the usual distinction many make between the chukim (decrees) and the mishpatim (judgments). Usually, some think that chukim are nonrational laws, while the mishpatim are rational, easy-to-understand, logical laws. The Rav finds that even the mishpatim are as much pure abstract, and not necessarily explainable laws, rooted in the divine will as are the chukim.

To illustrate this idea, the Rav asked, "Which law would you say is the most logical?" Usually the answer would be lo tirtzach (don't murder). Everyone knows that this is a logical law, without which society couldn't exist.

But the Rav points out that lo tirtzach is as much a divine imperative as any other inexplicable law. Of course, in the simple cases, the prohibition against murder seems understandable, but the real world is not simple.

"What about capital punishment?" the Rav asks.

Some logicians argue that capital punishment is, itself, murder; while others, just as logically, argue that it is a necessary deterrent to murder. Who is right logically? Halacha (Jewish law), on the other hand, is very detailed as to when capital punishment is and is not to be the sentence.

"What about abortion?" the Rav asks.

Some theologians and philosophers argue that abortion is always murder and is not permissible -- even to save the life of the mother. This was the view of the scholastics, as well as many absolutists today.

Other philosophers, equally logical, argue that abortion is a woman's right, and to deny a woman that right is to violate her privacy. This is the view of the Supreme Court of the United States. Who is right?

Logic alone can't answer this one. Some take the in-between position that abortion should be allowed in cases of rape, incest, etc. Halacha says it is allowed only to save the life of the mother from physical or psychological danger. Is this explicable by pure logic or is it a divine imperative?

Finally, the Rav points out that when we get to what philosophers call "lifeboat ethics," logic is clearly in favor of murder. For instance, 10 people are on a lifeboat in the middle of the sea, far from shipping lanes, where rescue is impossible. If they do nothing, all 10 will die. If they draw lots, kill one and eat him, nine will live. Here the logic clearly says to kill him. Even if they don't kill him, he will die anyway and by killing him, nine will survive. Logic says kill him. The Torah says lo tirtzach. In this instance, lo titzach is as paradoxical a divine imperative as parah aduma (the red heifer).

Parshat Mishpatim is, therefore, as much a part of the divine will as any other part of the Torah. One might think that only studying the ritual part of the Torah improves man. For instance, who cannot be inspired by learning the experiences of the high priest on Yom Kippur, doing teshuva (repentance) by saying vidui (confession) with the ineffable name of God and going into the holy of holies? This study is awe-inspiring.

But what about studying torts, damages and mishpatim? We come in contact with wild malicious oxen, vandals, thieves, murderers, etc. We study the minds of liars. Should we believe the plaintiff when he claims X, because he could have told a better lie Y. What could be uplifting or cathartic from a religious perspective regarding the study of these financial and criminal topics?

The Rav points out that this view of mishpatim is wrong, because mishpatim are the divine will as well. They are God's thoughts and their study cleanses and purifies man, to the same degree as the analysis of the theological aspects of the Torah. This is one of the primary reasons it was always stressed in the Jewish day school curricula, and is the subject of many monumental works by the great masters.

As the prophet Isaiah "Through mishpat, Zion will be redeemed." May we all merit this redemption speedily in our days, Amen.  

Steven Weil is senior rabbi of Beth Jacob Congregation in Beverly Hills.

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