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Mishpatim 2013

Mishpatim interrupts the narrative flow to teach us about employment and property law, health and safety, damages and restitution, prohibiting seduction of children (Ch 22 v 15), and insisting on kindness to strangers. Revolutionary new laws, very far from those pertaining in any society at that time, and not yet reached in ours in some respects.   
The Chief Rabbi writes: “The sedra of Mishpatim, with its detailed rules and regulations, can sometimes seem a let-down after the breathtaking grandeur of the revelation at Sinai. It should not be. Yitro contains the vision, but God is in the details. Without the vision, law is blind. But without the details, the vision floats in heaven. With them the divine presence is brought down to earth, where we need it most.”
Rabbi Riskin (contemporary, Israel) asks an excellent question about the status of a secular court to arbitrate between Jews.  Rashi (1040 - 1105) was against secular courts, not because of the quality of the justice itself, but because it involved honouring others’ gods, and therefore by definition desecrating our God.  From this we infer that Rashi would not have prohibited Jews from appearing before Israeli secular courts, nor courts in America where there is a separation of religion and state.   
But Maimonides’ opinion is that a Jew who brings a case in a secular court is “as if he has blasphemed and lifted his hand against the laws of Moses.” (Sanhedrin 26.7). Why is he so insistent in this matter, going so far as to call the person seeking judgement  outside Jewish law as “a wicked individual.”  It is because Maimonides believed strongly in the overarching principle of compassion in matters of Torah law.  He took seriously the idea that law should be invoked always with the intention of ameliorating human suffering, and believed that this would not be the underlying principle in a secular court.   
Unfortunately, we still have a long way to go. Rabbi Riskin adds the fervent plea for this wisdom and compassion to be more apparent in current Israeli rabbinical decrees, in particular where insensitive judges bring this principle into disrepute as far as laws involving individuals and their Jewish status are concerned. “My heart weeps” he writes, “to think that there might be more compassion on the part of the secular courts……and I believe that God and the Torah are sighing and sobbing as well.”      Merrill Dresner

More documents on this Parshah: