“A life for a life, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a hand for a hand …”
A very powerful, but troubling, ‘mishpat’ (judgement) from this week’s parashah.
Powerful, as the Torah, as told to Moshe at Sinai, insists that civil law is as important and as immediate as ‘celestial’ law.Troubling, as it seems to suggest that retribution should be corporeal and even capital; we also know that, whatever interpretations are wrought from the text by ChaZaL (The Sages), the ‘pshat’ (plain meaning) is intrinsically valid.
So at one time or another, in the turbulent history of the Jewish people, God foresaw that such retribution might need to be ‘on the statute books’ as it were.
However, we know that, from the earliest times, such retribution was substituted with monetary damages, or goods / labour in kind, as determined by ChaZaL. Thus, Judaism developed a nuanced complexity and contemporaneous maturity which requires intense study and rigorous interpretation in every generation.
We can read of the 53 mitzvot in Parashat Mishpatim, knowing that many of them only apply in an agrarian society, or a pre-industrial society, while appreciating that the laws which relate to our own 21st Century lives can be derived from the careful study of these precedents written so long ago.
Judaism has survived, and continues to survive, because our laws were never meant to be fossilized, but to adapt to changing circumstances while remaining true to their source.
In earlier times, Halachah was determined by the most respected rabbi in a particular city, town, or district. Now that the world is one large global village, it is difficult for even the greatest Rabbi of the generation (known as the Gadol haDor) to determine halachah even for his own ‘flock’ without that determination having repercussions around the world.
There are some pressing problems of Jewish civil society which need urgent solutions. We must politely and respectfully encourage our greatest Rabbanim to work together to seek these as thoroughly and humanely as ChaZaL did in their days.