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“No civilization would ever have been possible without a framework of stability, to provide the wherein for the flux of change. Foremost among the stabilizing factors, more enduring than customs, manners and traditions, are the legal systems that regulate our life in the world and our daily affairs with each other.” I should have thought of that, but the quotation is from Hannah Arendt. It is an appropriate quotation for this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim.
“Mishpatim” is variously translated, depending on the context, “sentences,” “judgments,” or “rules” (that’s the JPS translation in the first verse of Mishpatim). As I said before (many times), Mishpatim is the legal-code equivalent of Jackson Pollock’s painting technique. Mishpatim is a scatter-shot compendium of laws, where “You shall not tolerate a sorceress” (Ex. 22:17) is next to “Whoever lies with a beast shall be put to death” (Ex. 22:18).
Mishpatim covers the treatment of slaves to the treatment of an ox that gores. Nowadays, we look at Mishpatim with a who-knows-how-the-laws-were-arranged view, but if in a thousand years an archeologist looks at Title 2A, the compendium of New Jersey criminal laws before September, 1979, the archeologist would have the same view: Title 2A was arranged in alphabetic order, so robbery would follow rape.
Some of the laws to our modern eyes are barbaric (When a man strikes his slave, male or female, with a rod, and he dies there and then, he must be avenged. But if he survives a day or two, he is not to be avenged, since he is the other’s property [Ex. 21:20-21]). Some of the laws are enlightened (If a man seduces a virgin for whom the bride-price has not been paid, and lies with her, he must make her his wife by payment of a bride-price. If her father refuses to give her to him, he must still weigh out silver in accordance with the bride-price for virgins. [Ex. 22:15-16]).
Every society needs a system of laws that can be applied across the board. That is an ideal. I recently read in Jonathan Alter’s The Defining Moment, a quip that a news reporter wrote describing a banker: “If a man steals $25, he is thief. If he steals $25,000, he is an embezzler. If a man steals $250,000, he is a banker.”
Later on, in Deuteronomy, in Parashah Shoftim, we read, “You shall appoint magistrates and officials for your tribes, in all the settlements that the Lord your God is giving you, and they shall govern people with due justice. You shall not judge unfairly, and you shall show no partiality; you shall not take bribes, for bribes blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the plea of the just.”
We don’t know how the ancient Israelites adhered to the laws of Mishpatim, and we don’t know if the laws were applied equally. But we know that no society can exist without a legal system, and the laws of Mishpatim were accepted by Israelites, and the laws were a framework for a society.