Parsha Mishpatim

Legal Systems


Once we start reading about the legal system in the Torah, we move away from narrative, human conflict and the passions of life and turn towards system, law and governance. The two are not meant to stand in opposition but to complement each other. No society can function effectively without a legal system, without property rights and social obligations. However, to succeed in life one needs the more ephemeral good will and concern and need to relate to other human beings. As the Torah is a document that concerns individuals and society, it contains both.

But it is not static. Jewish law like any constitutional system is constantly being interpreted, added to and modified to meet new and different circumstances. No system stays the same otherwise it simply collapses under its own irrelevance.

So when we read this week “…an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, a burn for a burn and a bruise for bruise…” it is possible that once upon a time people took this literally. It goes back, after all, further in time than the Torah to Mesopotamian law. But if you look at context in Torah you will see in Exodus chapter 21.24 that the laws before and after all talk about financial compensation, not literally a life or limb.

Perhaps this was simply commonsense. How could a judge deal with a toothless man who had knocked out the tooth of someone with a full set? Or one eyed man who out the eye of a two-eyed human would be completely blind if you took out his other eye? People bruise differently. How could you guarantee a fair bruise equivalent? Was it practical necessity that brought about a change or a change in attitude, mentality, civilization? How come we stopped treating it literally more than two thousand years ago but there are millions of humans in other religions to this day who still insist on taking it literally?

You need laws to require fair compensation. But you need different kinds of ideas to deal with what is fair and just. That is why the Torah uses one word MISHPAT for keeping the law and
another TSEDEK for behaving in an ethical and caring way over and above the letter of the law. Ideally both are required for a just society.