Mishpatim – Torah for Today

Original Broadcast date: February 13, 2015

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(Please note: The transcript is not identical with the broadcast. Grammar has been corrected to enhance readability.)

Mishpatim

Beerman:

This week’s Torah portion, “Mishpatim,” covers Exodus 21 through 24, and I am really interested in some of the questions that arise as we look at this passage. First and foremost, what are some of the differences between what we understand as moral law, for instance in the Ten Commandments, and the rest of the laws of Torah, some of which are in this passage, that most Christians would think about as ceremonial. So Sasha, what is the connection or difference between the laws of Torah and these other ceremonial types of laws that we read in this particular portion?

Bolotnikov:

This is a very important question, because sometimes I hear Christians debating about the law in the writings of Paul, and when I listen to this debate, or I participate in the discussion about this, I often discover that people have no understanding of what the law of the Torah is all about.

“Mishpat” means judgment or legislation, and this is exactly how the Torah portion begins here in Exodus 21:1. These are the judgments. This is interesting, compared to Exodus 20 where it starts with the statement, “And the Lord spoke these words.” So the Ten Commandments as they are known in Christianity, are in Judaism known as “Aseret haDebrot.” These are ten statements that were made. This is what Exodus 20 is all about.

But in Exodus 21 through 24, these are legislations that follow the ten statements. The main difference is that God uttered the ten statements into the ears of the Israelites, and as we spoke already in the previous Torah portion, this is a unique event. God speaks with his own voice into the ears of the people.

Beerman:

So this term—Mishpatim, judgments—beginning this chapter, really sets these off as a different set of laws. Not manmade, they are God-made laws, but they would not really be considered moral as they 10 commandments or what?

Bolotnikov:

First of all, this is definitely not a ceremonial law. I will give you several examples. Let me open Exodus 22:21. It says here, “You shall neither mistreat a stranger nor oppress him; for you were strangers in a land of Egypt.” Does it look like a ceremony or a ritual to you?

Beerman:

No. This is helpful because it looks more like justice—law being applied in just ways to our fellow men.

Bolotnikov:

If you keep looking, “You shall not afflict any weak, or fatherless child.” That is basically ethics. That is an elementary rule of ethics, which we today take for granted.

Beerman:

So in a sense they are an outgrowth or application of moral law, but they are definitely different in nature.

Bolotnikov:

Yes. This is how this can be likened. I always bring this example Stan. I do not know if our listeners will be able to understand it, but think of it this way. People often mistake when they speak about the commandments of Jesus, “Love God and love your neighbor.” Although these are absolutely not the new commandments that Jesus gave in Mathew 22, these are all taken from the Torah, “You shall love your God with all your heart.” This is from Deuteronomy 6, whereas “You shall love your neighbor” is from Leviticus 19.

So basically I would compare this to the US Constitution, because several years ago I had to take my civic test for US citizenship, so I have learned it pretty well, “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” This is the foundational principle of the US constitution.

Beerman:

Indeed, yes interesting.
Bolotnikov:

Yes, but the constitution itself is bigger than just love. It is built on this principle.

So the Decalogue, the Ten Commandments is built on a principle. “Love your neighbor. Love God.”

Beerman:

I was just going to ask you. Sometimes it is confusing to folk because the Law of Moses, which is written on the stone, and then what is normally categorized or lumped together with some of these portions as ceremonial law were both put it in the ark. How differently were they placed in the ark?

Bolotnikov:

Well, I have heard this argument many times, and this is not really a good argument.

Beerman:

Okay.

Bolotnikov:

Well indeed, we have later on the Ten Commandments recorded with the finger of God as well as them uttered, which sets them apart.

Beerman:

Yes.

Bolotnikov:

The argument is made based on the Book of Deuteronomy that the Ten Commandments are in the ark, and the rest of them are not in the ark, and that is why we do not follow them, because they are ceremonial. This makes no sense, because what the Book of Deuteronomy says is that Moses is commanded by God to record these words into a scroll and place it beside the ark. Today we have a Torah scroll in our little congregation, Beit Shalom Balevav. We have a scroll, and if you open this scroll in a certain place you will see the Ten Commandments inside the scroll. So I do not think that the scroll which was beside the ark in the most Holy Place at the temple lacked the Ten Commandments. That makes no sense.

But again when we go into the idea of constitution. We can understand. The US is not governed by the constitution. Congress enacts or legislates the laws, which are the governing laws. They are based on the constitution, but constitution only presents very general principles. But you’ve got to have laws that actually govern.

Beerman:

Yes, and spell out specific applications as well.

Bolotnikov:

Yes, that is exactly what Mishpatim are all about. They are very specific, and as we can see, these are not ceremonies, not at all. We can talk about the Levitical laws as the temple laws. I don’t like the word ceremonies. But these definitely are not ceremonies. I can quote over and over like Exodus 23:1, “You shall not circulate a false report.” That is ethics.

Beerman:

That is ethics, yes. Would it be fair to characterize these as civil laws, or is this really not so much a civil law here?

Bolotnikov:

Some of it does have civil applications. It is a mix. We have for example, in Exodus 21, not only a civil but a criminal responsibility for kidnapping. In Exodus 21:1, somebody kidnaps a person and sells him. It is a death penalty. Exodus 22:18 is also very interesting. It talks about sorcerers, and it also criminalizes sorcery with the death penalty.

We have ethical laws. We have basic civil laws. For example, Exodus 22:16 says—let me read it how it is spelled in The New king James—“If a man entices a virgin who is not betrothed and lies with her, he shall surely pay the bride-price for her and to be his wife.” So that is definitely a civil matter regulating marriage. So you have civil, you have criminal, and you have ethical right there in this legislation.

Beerman:

These are helpful clarifications. It going to help Christians to understand and differentiate between these kinds of laws. Just a comment. I was noticing as I was reading through the section. It seems like many of these laws parallel in principle the action of God in freeing Israel from Egypt. Some of those same principles spill into these laws. The master for instance, how he treats his servant is how God has treated Israel. It is a very interesting thing.

Bolotnikov:

Oh yes.

Beerman:

Okay, the next question then really is, “Okay. So God laid out these judgments, these laws to create a harmonious system, social system within Israel, but how did they apply today? Are they still something we should consider enforced today? Are they relevant to us right now, in our century, our time?

Bolotnikov:

Well, one of the important things here is to realize how Mishpatim connects with what we talked about in Parashat Yitro, the previous Torah portion. We talked about how Israel, how before even the Ten Commandments were uttered, Jethro, the father-in-law of Moses comes in and helps Moses establish the judicial system of law enforcement.

We did have a precedent in the Middle Ages where the church actually took upon itself the role of being the judiciary and enforcing a law. I think everybody regrets this. The institution of the inquisition and something like that.

However, when you look into criminal portions, you have to have judges. Law enforcement needs to be in place.

Based on my reading of 1 Corinthians 12, which talks about spiritual gifts, I see a lot of different ministries in today’s body of Christ, but I do not see anybody gifted with the spiritual gift of judiciary or law enforcement. So apparently, I believe, we should apply the principle, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay.”

Beerman:

Of course here they are operating in a theocracy. God has called these people. He has established this nation. Things are perhaps not the same today in our present situation.

Bolotnikov:

Yes, when we speak about the new covenant, it places the laws into the hearts but does not establish a theocratic government to enforce the law. That is one of the ideas, which Jeremiah says. “The law should be placed into the heart.” So in other words, there is no big brother watching over you—how you behave, and if in the old system, there is sorcery—that is the important thing to understand for our listeners (and Exodus 20:19 is a good example of where it says, “But sorcerers should not be alive.”)—today, the Christian church does not have a right to burn people on a stake.

Beerman:

Praise the Lord for that.

Bolotnikov:

Yes, praise the Lord for that. So today, a death penalty won’t be carried out for practicing some kind of sorcery, but on the other hand, it does not mean that now we can engage in sorcery.

Beerman:

That is for sure, and again in principle within the Christian community, we certainly would want to be aware of that, teach that and give guidance in that area based on this council here.

Let us talk for a minute about the cultural milieu, the conditions in which these laws were given. They were a little different than they are now, and we kind of touched on that. We do not have slaves now, so again maybe just share with us a little bit about some of the differences.

Bolotnikov:

Well, the whole chapter begins with the issue of slaves, and it talks about the Hebrew slaves. We can see right away that the slavery millieu recorded in the Bible started very differently. That was a very unique situation. There is no similarity here with the unjust practice of slavery that happened in the history of the United States and basically the new world that was practiced everywhere.

One of the differences. The slavery as known pre-civil war in the United States: Slaves were acquired first of all through kidnapping. We’ve already seen you cannot kidnap a person and sell. How is the slave acquired? Very simple. In Exodus 22, it talks about theft for example, if somebody steals an ox, he will have to pay five times its value. That a huge amount.

Beerman:

Yes, that is a huge amount. That really is.

Bolotnikov:

So what happens is this. If a person steals like this and cannot repay, somebody has to pay. The person who pays or negotiates the payment of his debt has a claim on him. So he works for six years. Actually this is one of the examples in the theocratic state of Israel. They did not have a penitentiary system. (They saved on taxes that way.) So basically if a person declared bankruptcy, whether it is through theft or through other problems or any means, the only way to pay off the debit (and especially in case of theft) was to actually go for six years into servitude.

Somebody may ask, “What about the slave which is not Hebrew?” Well, very simple. A slave which is not Hebrew always has the chance to ask his master and tell him that he likes the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. He would go through conversion and get circumcised. Now he becomes a Hebrew slave, and he can go free whenever he wants to. In the context of the Israelite’s theocratic state, this law definitely makes a big difference between the laws of slavery that existed in Rome and in Egypt.

Beerman:

In looking at this section, I think there is a very relevant question that always arises when we look at what Jesus said in Mathew 5 about “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for the tooth,” and then He comments on that law here in chapter 21:23 and 24. In the New King James it says, “If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life.” This is in the context of hurting a women with child and having a dispute and there is a fallout and then it says, “Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.” How does Jesus’ application of this fit in with what we see here?

Bolotnikov:

That is a very important question because in this particular text, we have several cases—this eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth. There are three cases in the entire Torah, and I think we will discuss them when we go ahead. But one of the things we have to understand is the way these laws are constructed. They are based on case examples. Sometimes the case is really weird and unrealistic, and you have to draw the principle.

Beerman:

Out of it.

Bolotnikov:

Yes. The principle is very simple rabbis and theologians call these laws “talionic” laws, which means “equal restitution.” In other words, these laws are not about revenge because Leviticus 19:18 says, “Do not take vengeance.” So this is not about revenge. This is about a very simple thing. If I come too close to somebody’s car and clip it so my neighbor has a fender bender, I had better pay for it. This is just it. Basically that is what they were talking about. If there is any damage, here’s how to restore the damage. That actually you should not take vengeance, but take the normal judicial proceeding. With Jesus it is totally different. Remember what it says in the Torah. “You shall give an eye for an eye. “You” is not the victim. It is the one who is guilty.

Beerman:

Ah, the perpetrator.

Bolotnikov:

Yes, the perpetrator.

Beerman:

That makes a huge difference, so Jesus is really driving at the person who does the wrong act.

Bolotnikov:

No, the Torah is. The Torah commandment is to the perpetrator—the one who did the damage is commanded to give, to repay.

Jesus drives His point towards the victim. You should not go out and take. If you look at the Sermon on the Mountain in context, it is not even about brawls or fights. It is about the constant torts that people have. If you look at the context of the Book of Mathew, you will see this in that particular chapter.

I have been asked many times, based on what Jesus says, if a rapist comes, can the rape victim actually resist being raped?

This is in an iconic. If somebody sues you for the shirt on your back, you give him two. So this particular statement of Jesus is against this constant system of torts, because they are very harmful for interpersonal relations. So it has nothing to do with the laws of the Torah.