Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Bring back that Mishpatim Feeling! / Parshat Mishpatim

One of the most irritating phrases I heard as a child emanating from the mouths of my peers was, “I could care less.” They presumably meant, “I couldn’t care less,” but inadvertently told the truth: they said, “I could care less” only in response to things they truly cared about.

Parshat Mishpatim is aptly named. It is chock full of mishpatim – laws – of all sorts: slavery, assault, kidnapping, insulting parents, striking a woman and causing a miscarriage, wounding a slave, the ox that gores, leaving an open pit, theft in various forms, sorcery, bestiality, idolatry, mistreatment of orphans and widows, usury… the list goes on.

This collection of laws transcends the modern categories of civil, criminal, ritual, and ethical laws. They are all delivered, as it were, in one breath, without such distinctions, which are unknown to the biblical writer. Everything is within God’s purview; all human behavior is God’s concern because every act, however small, affects the universe. For everything, God says, “I could care less” precisely because God cares very much about everything.

From the Renaissance onward, people viewed religion as a “realm” of life and thought, rather than the lens through which all life was lived and all thought and values generated. Religion came to be restricted to the corners and crevices of life. For Jews, integration into western societies entailed jettisoning Jewish sovereignty over what we call civil and criminal laws, transforming Judaism from an all-encompassing way of living life in relationship with God and the universe, to a “religion” that addresses theological and ritual matters alone.

Yet the beauty, grandeur, and genius of Judaism is precisely that it is all-encompassing, that the categories of “civil,” “criminal,” “ritual,” and “ethical” do not exist as barriers because all life and experience are integrated. My every choice and action has ramifications beyond the intellectual compartment someone may choose to stuff it into. Every action has a ripple effect that spreads out through the universe. The ripple may often seem small, but it is real, and never negligible.

“Mere religion” is insufficient. Many today seek to recapture the sense of the unity of all being, the connectivity of all, a spirituality that is all encompassing, not pigeon-holed and limited. If anything I do matters, then everything I do matters. If Judaism is concerned only with ritual practices, and a few moral obligations, what’s the point? In fact, from a Jewish perspective, there is no distinction between “secular” and “religious,” “civic” and “moral” behavior.

It is time to recapture the deep insight of Judaism that we need to examine everything we do and its repercussions for the world because it all matters and because our tradition provides a wonderful way to approach the most challenging questions of life. While there is no one Jewish answer to every environmental issue, social justice question, or biomedical quandary, there is a Jewish approach: take each concern as a serious matter with divine implications, explore the options and their ramifications, use the best of modern scientific knowledge, and run everything through the sieve of Jewish traditions, values and ethics. This is the torah method. It has served us well for many generations, and is needed all the more today. The more we retrench and retreat from the all encompassing and comprehensive Jewish approach to living life, the more spiritually impoverished we will become.

Perhaps the most telling verse in all of Torah is Deuteronomy 22:3, the admonition not to remain indifferent. All of life must be invested with meaning because it all matters.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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