Parsha

For the week ending 10 February 2018 / 25 Shevat 5778

Parshat Mishpatim

by Rabbi Yaakov Asher Sinclair - www.seasonsofthemoon.com
Artscroll Library

Overview

The Jewish People receive a series of laws concerning social justice. Topics include: Proper treatment of Jewish servants; a husband's obligations to his wife; penalties for hitting people and for cursing parents, judges and leaders; financial responsibilities for damaging people or their property, either by oneself or by one's animate or inanimate property, or by pitfalls that one created; payments for theft; not returning an object that one accepted responsibility to guard; the right to self-defense of a person being robbed.

Other topics include: Prohibitions against seduction; witchcraft, bestiality and sacrifices to idols. The Torah warns us to treat the convert, widow and orphan with dignity, and to avoid lying. Usury is forbidden and the rights over collateral are limited. Payment of obligations to the Temple should not be delayed, and the Jewish People must be holy, even concerning food. The Torah teaches the proper conduct for judges in court proceedings. The commandments of Shabbat and the Sabbatical year are outlined. Three times a year — Pesach, Shavuot and Succot — we are to come to the Temple. The Torah concludes this listing of laws with a law of kashrut — not to mix milk and meat.

G-d promises that He will lead the Jewish People to the Land of Israel, helping them conquer its inhabitants, and tells them that by fulfilling His commandments they will bring blessings to their nation. The people promise to do and listen to everything that G-d says. Moshe writes the Book of the Covenant, and reads it to the people. Moshe ascends the mountain to remain there for 40 days in order to receive the two Tablets of the Covenant.

Insights

“Church and State”

“And these are the statutes…” (21:1)

The phrase "separation between Church and State" is generally traced to a January 1, 1802 letter by Thomas Jefferson, addressed to the Danbury Baptist Association in Connecticut, and published in a Massachusetts newspaper. Jefferson wrote: "I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should 'make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,' thus building a wall of separation between Church and State."

Jefferson was echoing the language of the founder of the first Baptist church in America, Roger Williams, who had written in 1644: "A hedge or wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world."

Judaism has never had this problem. It has always seen its job as bringing “the wilderness of the world” into “the garden of ‘the church’” and not let the world wander into greater and deeper wilderness.

“And these are the statues…”

Why are the laws of Judaism’s social contract juxtaposed with those of the rites of the Holy Altar in the Beit Hamikdash?, asks Rashi. He answers that the Torah is teaching us that the Sanhedrin, the supreme legislative body, should occupy a chamber adjacent to the Holy Altar.

Judaism sees no dichotomy between Divine service and the legislation of social conduct. They are both within the purview of faith without the need for walls or hedges.

Jefferson's metaphor of a wall of separation has been cited repeatedly by the U.S. Supreme Court. In Reynolds v. United States (1879) the Court wrote that Jefferson's comments "may be accepted almost as an authoritative declaration of the scope and effect of the (First) Amendment." In Everson v. Board of Education (1947), Justice Hugo Black wrote: "In the words of Thomas Jefferson, the clause against establishment of religion by law was intended to erect a wall of separation between church and state."

In contrast to separationism, the Supreme Court of the United States in Zorach v. Clauson upheld accommodationism, holding that the nation's "institutions presuppose a Supreme Being" and that government recognition of G-d does not constitute the establishment of a state church as the Constitution's authors intended to prohibit. As such, the Court has not always interpreted the constitutional principle as absolute, and the proper extent of separation between government and religion in the U.S. remains an ongoing subject of impassioned debate.

  • Source: Based on the Avnei Ezel

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