Sunday, January 31, 2016

Mishpatim: Indebted Slaves, Unborn Fetuses, & Other Sinai Laws


            The Torah’s author—whether Moses or another—interrupts the theophany narrative 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 then. They read quaintly, even now.

Like most Jews, I reserve the right to question, not reject, Torah: God, in His wisdom, gave me a brain, and I have used it all of my life. When the rabbis of my youth could not answer my questions, I was forced to seek out my own answers. In the course of my searching—which will never end—I found I had become a rabbi. The Torah belongs to me, as it does to all humanity.

Today, the favored translation of “Torah” is “Teaching,” a softer, vaguer word than “Law,” implying a sense of choice. Indeed, we Jews make choices about how, or whether, we practice our faith every moment of our lives, deciding what mitzvote we will practice, or not. Orthodox Judaism, which is hardly monolithic nowadays (if it ever was) has 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 his master 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 (Has the Torah not stacked the deck against him, here?), his master is to take him to a doorpost, and there pierce his earlobe 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 we may well recall how many American ministers preaching in the antebellum South used it as a gloss to “prove” that God approved of genocidal 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. In Jewish law, abortion is not considered murder, and the mother’s physical and mental health take precedence over that of the fetus.

This gives 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 that the mother’s health, both mental and physical overrides that of the unborn child. 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. “Turn it, and turn it again,” say the Talmudic Rabbis, “for everything you need to know is in it” (Ethics of the Fathers, 5:22).