Sunday, January 19, 2014

Parshat/Torah Portion Mishpatim: Torah Laws, Past & Present-- Indentured Servants & Women's Right of Choice Vindicated


            The Torah’s author—whether Moses or another—interrupts the narrative of the theophany at Mt. Sinai to introduce a set of seemingly unrelated mitzvote/commandments, fifty-three in all. This reminds us that the Torah is not only the story of our ancestors, and, by extension, ourselves, but also a Book of Laws. As a child, I recall the word “Torah” being translated as “Law”—something lofty and ponderous, but also fundamental to our right to call ourselves Jews; that is, a set of responsibilities, several of which made no sense to me. Today, the favored translation is “Teaching,” a softer, vaguer word, implying a sense of choice. Indeed, we Jews make choices about how we practice our faith every moment of our lives, deciding what mitzvote we will practice, or not. Our Orthodox brothers and sisters (who are, themselves, hardly monolithic or in agreement about which mitzvote they practice, and to what extent) have a saying: “There are two kinds of Jews in the world. Those who are religious, and those who are not, yet.”
            Where can we find God in this parsha/Torah portion? It contains a plethora of mitzvote and folkways, beginning with the laws of the Hebrew indentured servant. This refers to a poor soul (literally) whom the courts sell into slavery as a means of paying off his debts. (Imagine how the credit card companies would utilize this penalty, were it still in effect!) He is to serve his Hebrew master for no more than seven years; during that period, should he marry a maidservant of the master’s and have children by her, both his wife and children remain in servitude to the master when the servant departs at the end of his term. Should he elect to remain with his family, choosing to be a slave in perpetuity (a Hobson’s Choice, for sure), his master is to take him to a doorpost, and there pierce his ear with an awl—that same ear which, symbolically, failed to hear God’s message at Mt. Sinai, “Be servants to Me alone, and not to one another.” That sounds to me like an unwinnable proposition, no matter how you view it, and I wonder how many American rabbis preaching in the antebellum South used it as a gloss to “prove” that God approved of African slavery.

            Perhaps the most striking law in this compilation is that of the two men who, in the midst of fighting, inadvertently hit a pregnant woman, causing her to miscarry (Ex. 21:22). Because of a mistake in translating one of the words when the Hebrew text was translated from Greek (Septuagint, 132 BCE) to Latin (St. Jerome’s Vulgate, 405 CE), the meaning was changed (Goldman, 1978, p. 40). In Jewish law, abortion is not considered murder, and the mother’s physical and mental health take precedence. This puts the lie to the right-to-lifers’ insistence on human life’s beginning at the moment of conception. It does not mean that we Jews do not take the fetus’s right to exist lightly, but the mother’s health overrides that of the infant. Why should women not have the right to decide about their bodies, and their lives? We see, therefore, that parts of this Torah portion continue to resonate for us Americans, even today.

Goldman, Alex J. Judaism Confronts Contemporary Issues. NY: Shengold, 1978.