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Torah Sparks

Parashat Mishpatim - Shabbat Shekalim
February 14, 2015 – 25 Shevat 5775

Annual (Exodus 21:1 – 24:18): Etz Hayim p. 456; Hertz p. 306
Triennial (Exodus 22:4 – 23:19): Etz Hayim p. 465; Hertz p. 311
Maftir (Exodus 30:11 – 16): Etz Hayim p. 523; Hertz p. 352
Haftarah (II Kings 12:1 – 17): Etz Hayim p. 1277; Hertz p. 993

Prepared by Rabbi Adam Rosenbaum
Charleston, SC

Continuing a listing of laws begun at Revelation, God sets forth rules concerning the treatment of slaves, capital offenses, punishments for causing bodily injury, responsibility over one's animals and property, caring for strangers, ethical prohibitions, festivals, obligations to God, and Divine promises.

God asks the Israelite leadership to approach Mount Sinai again. The people promise to faithfully fulfill God's commands. Moses ascends Mount Sinai, receiving stone tablets containing God's teachings.

Theme #1: Every Witch Way

You shall not tolerate a sorceress. (Exodus 22:17)

The above is the first of several exhortations in the Torah against witchcraft.

We find in the Talmud as well as in later rabbinic writings evidence that the rabbis themselves often indulged in magic and other occult practices, even those who didn’t acknowledged the efficacy of such practices. As Rabbi Eliezer ben Jacob admitted: “Although there is no divination, there are signs.” -- Ellen Frankel, The Five Books of Miriam

The word mekhashefa, at least as it appears in the text at hand, is a collective noun. The Torah instructs us that all sorts of witches, sorcerers and sorceresses, are not be tolerated. -- Meir Bar-Ilan, “You Shall Not Tolerate a Sorceress”, from A Divinely Given Torah in our Day and Age, Volume I

The term “not allow to live” is a technical term for the ban. Nevertheless, it does not mean to be identical with the usual formula of “surely die”. The scope of the former appears wider and includes extermination out of the land. -- Brevard S. Childs, The Book of Exodus

Questions for Discussion:

Frankel recognizes that, perhaps contrary to the rule laid out in our portion today, the rabbis understood that magic might not have been so evil. Yet modern readers often dismiss magic (better described as illusion in our vocabulary) as, at best, an entertaining pastime not meant to be taken seriously. Is our society somehow diminished for not believing in magic? Or is it a sign of our advanced thinking that we consider magic to be an amusing plaything more than anything else?

Bar-Ilan insists that the Torah believes that any kind of sorcery is dangerous. How have our attitudes on magic evolved? Should we consider the Harry Potter books as contrary to Jewish values? Does the Torah expect us to look down on the exploits of Harry Houdini or David Blaine? Is any kind of sleight of hand or trickery dangerous, even if such feats can be explained logically?

Childs clarifies that this verse in our portion does not command the execution of witches or sorcerers, but suggests that such people must be shunned and removed from Israelite society. Is it fair to argue that forcing someone to live away from his/her community might be a fate worse than death? Can this argument be extended to our rules regarding criminals today? Would it be fair to suggest that a life of imprisonment -- especially in solitary confinement -- is more “cruel and unusual” than suffering the death penalty?

Theme #2: Majority Rules?

You shall neither side with the mighty to do wrong -- you shall not give perverse testimony in a dispute so as to pervert it in favor of the mighty. (Exodus 23:2)

From the get-go, the Torah emphasizes the rights of the righteous, no matter how many people stand against him or her.

In a case where the appropriate ruling is not clear cut and can be “turned” or viewed from various angles, the decision must be by majority vote. But in cases where there is no room for doubt, the decision is not subject to a vote. Therefore the Jewish people will never defer to the will or custom of the majority in matters of faith and religious observance. -- Rabbi Moses Schreiber

[In the story of the oven of Achnai,] God’s acquiescence to this apparent chutzpah is all the more astounding when we realize that when Rabbi Jeremiah quoted the Torah as saying “after the majority must one incline,” he had consciously misquoted! What the Torah actually says is “after the majority one must not incline,” but Rabbi Jeremiah chose to omit the first Hebrew word, lo (meaning “no”) from his quote, changing the entire intent of the verse. And yet, God raises no objections. The Talmud suggests that God relishes human input in the legal process; if submission is one end of the spectrum, Jewish tradition also recognizes and validates the other, which we might call human activism. -- Daniel Gordis, God Was Not in the Fire

[The king had the stele inscribed with the laws of his code] “so that the strong might not oppress the weak, that justice might be dealt the orphan and the widow.” -- Epilogue to the Code of Hammurabi

Questions for Discussion:

Rabbi Moses Schreiber clarifies that Jewish decisions do not simply rely on a 51% majority. Another example might be Solomon Schechter’s concept of “Catholic Israel,” in which the voices of all Jews are welcome, but what counts are the voices of Jews who are invested in the future of Jewish society. Are there times when it makes sense that a simple majority decision should define our future? Are there times when a smaller group is the right one to make a difficult decision regardless of the views of the community?

Daniel Gordis refers to the (arguably) most famous story in the Talmud to explain how Jewish society has embraced majority rule in many cases over the ages. Is Rabbi Jeremiah’s omission of a key word in this verse from our Torah portion a sign of chutzpah, or is it reflective of the reality of the post-biblical age? Is majority rule an acknowledgement that only God can supersede a majority?

The Epilogue to the Code of Hammurabi reflects a fear that many of America’s Founding Fathers had: the tyranny of the majority. When might it make its presence felt in our society today? What safeguards do we have against it? Why is it something we should fear? Is Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in Germany the ultimate example of how the tyranny of the majority (or, at least in Hitler’s case, the tyranny of the plurality) can lead to destruction? Or was that a unique case in history?

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