Torah Portion of the Week: Imbuing Faith With Decency

Most of the commandments mentioned in Parashat Mishpatim deal with social matters and are justified by means of arguments that appeal not just to religious faith, but also to logic and emotion.

'The Covenant Confirmed,' by Joseph Steeple Davis (late 19th or early 20th century).

One of the many laws described in Parashat Mishpatim (Exodus 21:1-24:18) deals with loans – “If thou lend money to any of my people, to the poor with thee” (Exodus 22:24) – and includes two prohibitions. First of all, the lender must not charge interest: “Thou shalt not be to him as a creditor; neither shall ye lay upon him interest” (Exod. 22:24). Second, if the borrower offers a garment as collateral, the lender must return it by a set time: “If thou at all take thy neighbor’s garment to pledge, thou shalt restore it unto him by that the sun goeth down” (Exod. 22:25).

These two prohibitions run counter to the economic logic of a loan. The first one prevents the possibility of any profitability; the second means that the lender could suffer financial loss. Since the impoverished borrower has no assets, the only way to ensure that the loan is repaid, according to the verse that immediately follows, is to confiscate his nightclothes – and yet the Torah prohibits such action, for an obvious reason: “For that is his only covering, it is his garment for his skin; wherein shall he sleep?” (Exod. 22:26).

In the reality depicted here, the borrower does not have a closet full of clothes and thus failure to pay back the loan could find him without any clothes to sleep in at night. Since this is an intolerable situation, there is no reason to explain the Torah’s reasoning. If society nonetheless allows for the confiscation of the garment, God himself would hear the poor borrower’s protest: “And it shall come to pass, when he crieth unto me, that I will hear; for I am compassionate” (Exod. 22:26).

Although God describes himself as compassionate, the law preceding this one ends with a warning of the potential lethal wrath he could unleash on his people – a threat intended to prevent abuse of society’s weaker members: the strangers, widows and orphans. If you do not see to the welfare of these elements in your society, God warns Israel, I will place your families in that sector: “If thou afflict them in any wise – for if they cry at all unto me, I will surely hear their cry. My wrath shall wax hot, and I will kill you with the sword; and your wives shall be widows, and your children fatherless” (Exod. 22:22-23).

Another law in Parashat Mishpatim warns Israel of the danger of assimilation into the Canaanite culture they will encounter in the Promised Land. This stricture prohibits any covenants being made with the land’s native inhabitants, and mandates the destruction of their places of worship: “Thou shalt not bow down to their gods, nor serve them, nor do after their doings; but thou shalt utterly overthrow them, and break in pieces their pillars” (Exod. 23:24).

The exclusivity God demands in the domain of his people’s religious devotion is emphasized several times in this week’s reading, and is consistent with the characterization of him as “a jealous God” (Exod. 20:4), as presented last week in Parashat Yitro. This trait is embodied in the prohibition of idolatry in Canaan out of the fear that idol worship could tempt the hearts of the Israelites.

The Talmudic tradition distinguishes “commandments concerning relations between people,” relating to social relations, from “commandments connection relations between mortals and God.” However, no such distinction exists in Parashat Mishpatim, where the two categories intermingle. Since God is the sole arbiter and sovereign, activity in all spheres of life must be conducted in accordance with his instructions. Generally (but not always), moral arguments are presented in the name of the Almighty without any clear differentiation between them and arguments pertaining directly to faith and worship. God, who prohibits abuse of the poor and of strangers, is the same deity demanding that the Israelites isolate themselves from the neighboring nations whose altars they must destroy.

Is it possible nonetheless to separate moral principles from religious ones? Some prophets opposed such separation, arguing that rituals divorced from just, righteous conduct are unacceptable to God. Thus, for example, he declares, through Isaiah, that he will not acknowledge hands outstretched in prayer when they are drenched in blood: “I will hide mine eyes from you; yea, when ye make many prayers, I will not hear; your hands are full of blood” (Isaiah 1:15). In Jeremiah’s prophecies, God decries the belief in the Temple in Jerusalem as an asylum for sinners: “Will ye steal, murder, and commit adultery, and swear falsely... and come and stand before me in this house, whereupon my name is called, and say: ‘We are delivered’…?” (Jeremiah 7:9-10).

While the prophets rejected religious life that lacks morality, they could not even imagine the reverse: a moral life without religion. This is not just a philosophical issue – it is an exegetical one as well: Can one adopt Parashat Mishpatim’s humanistic values without necessarily adopting their religious foundations, which at times also yield values that are not humanistic?

Most of the commandments mentioned in this week’s portion that deal with social matters are justified by means of arguments that appeal not just to religious faith, but also to logic and emotion. The question, “For that is his only covering, it is his garment for his skin; wherein shall he sleep?” does not lose its power when it lacks a justification anchored in religious faith; rather, it becomes more crucial in the absence of a God who will hear the impoverished borrower’s cry. The prohibition against abusing strangers and others is grounded in Israel’s historical memory: “And a stranger shalt thou not wrong, neither shalt thou oppress him; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exod. 22:20), and “And a stranger shalt thou not oppress; for ye know the heart of a stranger, seeing ye were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exod. 23:9). As for the injunction against taking bribes, the text emphasizes the extent of corruption such conduct can produce: “And thou shalt take no gift; for a gift blindeth them that have sight, and perverteth the words of the righteous” (Exod. 23:8).

Thus, it would appear that divorcing the Torah’s moral commandments from their religious context is possible from the exegetical standpoint and does not distort the text. Although the Bible was created in a period when culture existed entirely in the religious realm, and national, social and moral values were almost always affiliated with religious faith – such values remain valid and meaningful even without any such association.

The adoption of the Bible as a source of humanistic inspiration does not entail the adoption of the entire Bible or its exclusive adoption. It is intertwined with the functions of exegesis and selection, which are necessarily rooted in the cultural gap between the Bible and the present era, and in the multifaceted nature of the Bible. For the faithful, the voice of a God who demands justice and lawful conduct rises from the Bible with an urgency no less great than his ban on idolatry. But for any member of Jewish or Israeli culture, whatever their beliefs may be, there is importance in anchoring humanistic values in the ancient biblical text that adds depth and meaning to life.