Mishpatim – 29th January 2022 – Franz Fuerst

Today’s Torah portion Mishpatim with its rather stern list of divine statutes, ordinances and potential punishments may seem slightly at odds with a simcha, the joyous occasion of celebrating a bar mitzvah.  The BM boy’s dvar torah already hinted at the fact that not all of these precepts are easy to accept from a contemporary point of view. And yet, doesn’t the very term ‘bar/bat mitzvah’ imply that the young person being called up to the Bimah is now considered a ‘son/daughter of the commandments’ as fully fledged members of the community as they accept the ol hamitzvot (the yoke of the commandments), thereby perhaps not too dissimilar from a servant observing their master’s orders? Of course, depending on who you ask, the term mitzvah can either mean a commandment or a good deed, two very different translations of the same word.

Three types of mitzvot
In fact, the Torah uses at least three different Hebrew terms for divine orders that are closely connected but can be difficult to distinguish from one another. The mitzvot fall roughly into three categories: Chukim, mishpatim and eidot. These terms are used throughout the holy scriptures, even in the Passover Haggadah where the Wise Son, one of the four children, asks:  “What are the eidot, chukim and mishpatim that God commanded you?” They can be roughly translated as testimonials (eidot), decrees (chukim) and laws (mishpatim). Some sources view these as different categories serving different purposes. Whereas a mishpat is of a more practical and logical nature, the chukim can be thought of as supra-rational divine decrees that are not and should not be subject to human reasoning and examination and eidot occupying an intermediate position between the two. The willingness to accept the yoke or the burden of these commandments is emphasised dramatically in the Israelite people’s declaration in the upcoming Torah portion (Ex 24:7): “Naaseh v’nishmah!”, “We will do it, we will obey it!”

To question or not to question
And it is precisely this fact that the chukim but ultimately all three categories of mitzvot are not to be questioned, that progressively-minded Jews have been grappling with since the beginning of the Haskalah (the Jewish Enlightenment movement) and the subsequent founding of the non-orthodox streams of Judaism.

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik points this out very sharply in his book ‘The Halakhic Mind’ when he writes “We are not to ask for any generating cause or goals. This is implied in the Halakhic dictum: ‘I have set down statutes (chukim) and you may not examine them’.” Nine centuries earlier, Rashi had pointed out: “It is a decree… you have no permission to question its observance.” Soloveitchik gives three illustrative examples from Maimonides that show that Jewish laws, although they may have had rational origins (for example to prevent food poisoning in the case of kosher food or keeping hygienic and sanitary standards in the case of contamination and purification laws) are not to be explained, at least not exclusively, from a rational point of view. He writes: “The profound religious mind would undoubtedly resent such platitudes” (p.97). To Soloveitchik, the mitzvot represent a mystical objectification that cannot be fathomed by mere utilitarian or pragmatic motives.

Needless to say, removing the mitzvot away from rational scrutiny into a sphere of ultimate truths that are sacrosanct and not to be questioned, was deeply troublesome to liberal and enlightened thinkers of Judaism. After all, there is a long list of decrees and laws that liberal Jews (using the term broadly here) have deemed necessary to modify or drop altogether.

Concentric circles
All progressive streams of Judaism accept that continuous re-examination and modification of laws and practices is necessary in light of our ever-expanding understanding of our humanity and environment. Where a few thousand years ago we may have only felt sympathy and loyalty for the closest members of our family and tribe, this circle has expanded considerably to include all of humankind, animals and our natural environment.  It is perhaps no surprise that the Jewish environmentalist movement has been flourishing in recent years as an extension of the concept of tikkun olam (repairing the world). Organisations such as the US-based Hazon aspire to be a “transformative movement weaving sustainability into the fabric of Jewish life, in order to create a healthier, more sustainable, and more equitable world for all.”

The widening inclusion into our circles of empathy is also a major driving force that Steven Pinker identifies in his book ‘The Better Angels of our Nature’ which charts human progress over the centuries, the remarkable decline of inter-personal and inter-state violence and the rise of more enlightened values culminating in what Pinker and others call the ‘long peace’ that we currently live in.

Who has the right to change traditions and laws?
But despite all the good that has come from this broadening of our horizons, a thorny question remains for anyone who is dedicated to both Jewish and rational Enlightenment values: who has the right to change or ignore halakhah? Who gets to decide when a ritual is outdated or has lost its original purpose? Rabbis, councils, institutions or is it down to the individual or even individual situations and particular circumstances? For instance, perhaps the Sabbath should be kept free of work and chores as a principle but if pressing circumstances require it, can an exception be made?’

This is of course a profound and extremely difficult question to answer and perhaps there can never be a definitive one in a religious and cultural tradition that is not organised in a top-down hierarchical manner but very much decentralised and pluralistic. It is noteworthy, however, that we can see clear signs of how views change over the centuries when we compare the stance on slaves in today’s Torah portion Exodus 21:1-19 with today’s Haftarah Jeremiah 34:8-22  and the sympathy expressed for released slaves in the latter, more recent passage. This shows that even in ancient times ethical norms were continuously evolving and this point is reflected in the seminal writings of so many progressive Jewish thinkers including Moses Mendelsohn, Abraham Geiger, Isaac Mayer Wise, Martin Buber, Hermann Cohen and Leo Baeck.

Is it all just a gigantic game of meme replication?
But what does all this have to do with a bar mitzvah ceremony, you may ask? Well, if the bar mitzvah is in essence about the transmission of traditions, laws and practices from one generation to the next, we cannot get around the question of what should get passed down through the generations and what doesn’t or shouldn’t. Progressive Judaism cherishes traditions but also encourages everyone, including young people, to think for themselves. But in doing so it does not share the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins’ view that it is wrong to ‘inflict’ religion on a child. Instead, it is more in line with an idea that sees people as making conscious and creative choices. In this sense, it is closer to Socrates and his maxim to live according to one’s well-examined beliefs. Hence, the Jewish literacy bestowed upon the bar/bat mitzvah in his/her studies is like a toolkit that helps the young person develop a critical and conscious mindset for examining their attitudes and beliefs and determine what the best and most ethical course of action is in any situation .

This ‘chain of tradition’ that connects generations over millennia, the l’dor va dor’ is crucial for Jewish survival or in fact the survival of any religion or cultural tradition. But is there an inherent clash between science and spiritual values here that is impossible to bridge? A geneticist or biologist such as Dawkins may argue that cultures and religions are full of memes (cultural replicators) that we all adopt and which turn us into simple meme machines that ensure not much more than the survival of these memes. In this view which derives from the evolutionary theories of Darwin and Wallace, we are slaves to the ’selfish cultural memes’ that we transmit whether we like it or not.  Hence, our thoughts, ideas and cultures own us, not the other way around. This seems like a compelling argument and yet I would disagree with it vehemently for several reasons. For one, it is very mechanistic/deterministic and leaves no room for a conscious self that has any agency in whatever he or she does. We only have to take a look around us to know that this concept of blind cultural transmission does not tell the whole story, Our own lives and the lives of the people we know are replete with impressive spiritual journeys, improbable U-turns and serendipitous life-changing decisions of our own making. Secondly, it does not explain why certain, often fleeting or ephemeral encounters resonate and stay with us for a lifetime whereas on the other hand we sometimes cast off very potent and dominant influences in our upbringing and culture as we mature. In other words, my reading of the Jewish view is that we most definitely have a say in what gets transmitted, neither blindly following the traditions passed down from earlier generations nor dismissing the idea that our ancestors can teach us some important lessons.

I also see a logical problem with the selfish meme proposition. If true, the whole construct would run into an infinite loop, a mind-boggling catch-22. Being convinced that we are merely meme replicators is of course an idea or meme in itself. So if I told my son to not be a meme replicator, I would put him in a terrible double bind. (1) If he heeds my advice and takes it seriously that would actually entail that he should not heed my advice. (2) If he does not heed my advice, i.e. objects to my idea that we should not be meme replicators, what would that make him? Alas, a meme replicator! Perhaps this is just brain-twisting sophistry on my part but it makes me wonder if the whole edifice of the selfish meme is structurally sound.

My wish for the BM boy
So where does all this leave us? To me, one of the most beautiful aspects of progressive Judaism is that it acknowledges that as humans we have multiple allegiances, some of which we cannot choose (family etc) and others that we choose by conviction (e.g. friends, cultural influences, perhaps also a trust in science, rationalism and humanism as forces for good). This way of thinking allows us -and you the BM boy as you celebrate this milestone in your journey toward adulthood- to find a way to honour all of these allegiances without being forced to abandon or reject what is naturally near and dear to our heart. Not only is this more intellectually honest than claiming to adhere to a single purist set of principles but, on a more personal level, it connects us with the loyalty and love of all the people who touch our lives. My wish for you, my son, is to remain the open-minded and kind-hearted person that you are as you continue on your journey through life, wherever it may take you and that you may experience these traditions as a vast treasure that is yours to discover for life, not as a burden. In the words of Rabbi Yehuda Ha-Nasi in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of our Fathers): “Which is the right path for a person to choose for themselves? Whatever brings harmony to the one who does it and harmony to all people”. Mazel tov to you and shabbat shalom!