The Short Arm of the Law

3 02 2008

Yesterday was my brother’s bar-mitzvah! As both an older sibling and his teacher, I was very proud. His parsha was משפטים (“laws”) and spanned Exodus 21 through 24. I did the leyning (לייען = Yiddish, “read”) from the Torah and, as a result, had spent a rather long period of the time with this particular parsha in advance of the day – a period of time that provided me with much material for thought. It is an interesting parsha and some of my favourite verses happen to be found within it. Take, for example, the following (rather dark) examples:

כל אלמנה ויתום לא תענון. אם ענה תענה אתו כי צעק יצעק אלי שמע אשמע צעקתו. וחרה אפי והרגתי אתכם בחרב והיו נשיכם אלמנות ובניכם יתמים
“You may not oppress any widows or orphans. If you do oppress one, I shall certainly hear his cry when he calls out to me. My anger will flare against you and I will kill you by the sword – then your wives may be widows and your children, orphans” (Ex 22:21-23)

ואם אסון יהיה ונתתה נפש תחת נפש. עין תחת עין שן תחת שן יד תחת יד רגל תחת רגל. כויה תחת כויה פצע תחת פצע חבורה תחת חבורה
“And if any damage ensues, you must give a life for a life. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a hand for a hand, a foot for a foot; a burn for a burn, a wound for a wound, a bruise for a bruise” (Ex 21:23-25)

וכי יגף שור איש את שור רעהו ומת
“And if a man’s ox gores the ox of his companion…” (Ex 21:35a; cf: Ibn Ezra, ad loc)

מכשפה לא תחיה
“You must not let a witch live” (Ex 22:17)

מלאתך ודמעך לא תאחר בכור בניך תתן לי
“Do not delay the ‘skimming of the first yield of the vats’ [JPS]; give me your first-born sons” (Ex 22:28)

These quotes, despite concerning varying situations, all have certain things in common. The laws of the goring ox, of the murder of female magicians, the sacrificing of first-born sons, and the bodily compensation for punishments (possibly even vicariously so) are all laws that bespeak an (excuse me) primitive civilsation. Within the days of the Bible’s composition, some of these laws were already being edited out of existence. Despite demanding the sacrificial murder of children, Ex 22:28 continues by stressing that “such shall you do to your oxen and your flock”, although the particular circumlocution involved is recognised by some scholars as constituting an addition to the text. Even the reason behind the socially advanced rule of protecting widows and orphans is -ahem- barbarously primitive.

I am well aware that such adjectives are not considered appropriate. Perhaps “strict” and “atavistic” would be more fitting? Either way, so far as I see it, the import is exactly the same. For Christians, who were saved from the observance of the Law, such injunctions may only serve to indicate the gulf, as they see it, between the Old and the New Testaments. For Jews, such laws continue to be binding, albeit interpreted virtually out of existence in many generations. Ex 21:23-25 is always given as the classic example of this. For a life, one must pay the monetary value of a life in compensation; for an eye, the monetary value of an eye; etc.

Even so, it was not the Talmud that was being read in the synagogue yesterday and, to my ears, the harsh brutality of the material that I was reading clashed with the festivity of the occasion. There would have been others within the small synagogue that we attend who also understood the meaning of the Hebrew text, as well as some who may have been reading the English as I chanted. Perhaps they, like me, found humorous the narrative in Ex 24:10-11?

ויראו את אלהי ישראל ותחת רגליו כמעשה לבנת הספיר וכעצם השמים לטהר. ואל אצילי בני ישראל לא שלח ידו ויחזו את האלהים ויאכלו וישתו
“And they saw the god of Israel: beneath his feet, the likeness of a sapphire block – like the very sky for purity! But He did not raise His hand against the leaders of the Children of Israel; they gazed upon the Lord, and they ate and drank”

How suddenly Jewish the whole thing felt! After so much bloodshed and so much insane cruelty; after laws that legitimise murder and genocide, and ascribe a higher level of value to freemen over slaves, how we should come across something that might resonate in the mind of a contemporary Yid! This fascinating theological passage describes the experience of the elders of Israel who, along with Moses and Aaron, Nadav and Abihu, witnessed the body of God in a single scene that provided more interpretational difficulty than even the legitimisation of the nightmare of laws that preceded it. And how did they all deal with the sight of their glorious creator, resplendant before them in awesome majesty? The same way that we, yesterday, dealt with the panoply of indictments that constituted the rest of the parsha: we ate and drank.

A final note.
I have no doubt that at the time of composition, these laws (with their original meanings) were considered both enlightened and fair. Such is certainly not the case now. Nonetheless, their wording is beautiful and I would not take such delight in reading them aloud were it not that they also speak to me on a personal level. Despite my criticisms of them, and my flippant (sometimes seditious) treatment of my religion, the book that houses these laws is like a relative who I cannot stand. I can hate them all I like; I will continue to love them nonetheless.

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