Unscrolled: A Rabbinical Student’s Take on Parashat Mishpatim

Religion is a thing forced upon children by the adults in their lives. To this day, my brother and I recall with horror how, at the command of our parents, we endured High Holiday services in uncomfortable formal shoes, bored by a relentless stream of inscrutable words and exhausted by senseless exhortations to stand up and sit down on cue.

Earlier this year, however, I realized that I missed this familial Judaism. Moreover, as an adult (and a rabbinical student at that), I realized that it was my turn to do the forcing. I approached my father with a request. “I want us to study Torah together,” I said. “As a family.”

Before long, my father, uncle, aunt and I began meeting regularly over Zoom to study parashat hashavua — the weekly Torah portion.

From the very start, I realized this would be different from my other experiences of Torah study. Although Jewish identity has always been of great importance to all three of them, our study sessions were largely their first point of contact with the text of the Torah itself, and each came with very different preconceived notions about what they would find there.

This works out best for my father. As a proud atheist, he comes in each week with low expectations and leaves pleasantly surprised. My uncle, as the patriarch of our family, sees our study mainly as a pretense for gathering together. My aunt, however, has a more difficult experience. She is a devoted Jew who serves on her synagogue’s board and is deeply committed to her faith. As such, she began studying not merely with a preconceived notion of Torah, but also with a preconceived ideal of Torah.

In his essay, “The Hatred of Poetry,” poet Ben Lerner makes the argument that the mainstream unpopularity of poetry is caused, counterintuitively, by our society’s high esteem for the artform. We view poetry as something pure, transcendent and spiritual. With exalted notions like these about poetry in general, any single, specific poem is doomed to disappoint. In Lerner’s words, when we read a poem, our ideal is confronted by the “bitterness of the actual.” If this is true for poetry, how much more so for scripture, where the bitterness of the actual can make the text quite hard to swallow.

The bitterness of the actual can make the text quite hard to swallow.

All of this brings me to Parashat Mishpatim. Presented to us as a timeless code, the laws in this parasha reveal themselves to be utterly of their time — which is to say, upsettingly regressive and hopelessly unrelatable. Male and female slaves are discussed coolly as chattel. The ability of a master to abuse his slaves is mitigated but not eliminated. The laws of retributive justice — an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth — are spelled out in stark detail.

The parasha begins with the declarative statement “These are the rules,” but one is tempted to restate it as a question: “These are the rules?” After all, it is this question which my aunt will surely ask of me at tonight’s Torah study.

By way of an answer, the best I can offer her is a reminder that that the feeling of dissonance between the ideal of the Torah and the “bitterness of the actual” is not unique to us moderns. This tension is as old as Judaism itself.

In this heat of this tension, the great intellectual and spiritual movements of our tradition have been forged, resulting in the ingenious exegetic maneuvers of the Talmudic sages and the mystical esoteric readings of the Kabbalists, who taught how the supernal Torah — timeless and perfect —was forced to don the “garments of this world” when she descended from heaven to live among us.

And aren’t we grateful that she did? This, I suppose, is the paradox of Torah. In daring to legislate — to become a living force in our lives — God’s word left the realm of the ideal and entered the realm of the actual, deigning to become dirty in the sands of history, sullied by context and made foolish by the passage of time. Were this not so, the ideal would be left unspoken. We would feel no dissonance, but nor would we be Jews, gathering together some thousands of years later to parse words of Torah.

Matthew Schultz is the author of the essay collection “What Came Before” (2020). He is a rabbinical student at Hebrew College in Newton, Massachusetts.


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