Monday, February 13, 2012

Old Laws, Our Story

Parshat Mishpatim
Shmot 21:1-24:18
25 Shevat 5772 / Feb. 17 – 18, 2012

Old Laws, Our Story
by Zvi Bellin, MHHQ

This week’s Torah portion starts off with some laws that are hard to relate to and hard to swallow. The opening verses (Shmot 21:1-6) talk about owning a Jewish slave and the conditions of the slave going free, marrying, and term of service. It seems quite awful and as I learned more about the laws from Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Issac, France, 1040-1105) things got even more bizarre.

Here is what Rashi writes on these verses (paraphrased):
You can only own a Jewish slave on two conditions: (1) A Jew can sell themselves (we are talking about males here, but they come with their wife and kids if they have any) IF they are trying to get out of poverty, and, (2) The courts can sell a Jewish man IF the person was a thief and will pay off his dues for what he stole by the money made for the sale.

The verses teach that an enslaved Jewish man can be given a wife. The wife and children are property of the slave owner. In this case, the master can only force a man to marry a female slave IF it is the case of a thief sold by the court AND if that thief is ALREADY MARRIED TO A JEWISH WOMEN. So the female slave that is forced to marry and sleep with this Jewish male slave MUST be non-Jewish. If the male Jewish slave is NOT married before he is sold into slavery he cannot be forced to start a family with a non-Jewish slave. Why??

The Torah does not want to entice any Jew into remaining a slave, so if you are single and then go into slavery and become a family man, you might want to stay a slave so you can remain with your non-Jewish wife and children. But if you already have a family out of slavery, you will NO WAY want to remain with your non-Jewish wife and kids in slavery. You will prefer to be a free man with your free Jewish wife and children. And if you do not prefer freedom, but you want to stay a slave – you have your ear pierced by a door post as a permanent symbol of your choice. (Of course, at the end of the 50 year Jubilee Cycle – you must go free, no ifs ands or buts about it!)

So, OMG! There is no way around these laws as completely insane from our current world view. The Torah world as explained by Rashi was a world where marrying multiple wives was encouraged! A world when the opposite of being a free person was becoming property and losing your entire personal agency. (They were forced to marry strange women, have children, and then forced to cut their ties with these people.) Where women were always treated as property and non-Jewish slaves were barely considered human.

According to Rashi, there are some points of compassion in these laws. A slave owner who buys a married Jewish slave, must provide for the entire family. A person who is a thief has the opportunity to give back to his community even if he cannot afford the punishment of his crime. (Perhaps there is something to the rehabilitation to criminals, keeping them as part of the community, which our current legal system is missing.) But it is really tough to make sense of these laws sometimes and they can be a huge turn off for folks that are poking around or teetering on the fence of Jewish involvement.

As we turn our sites to less of the Torah as narrative, and more as a rule book, I want to remind myself that this Torah is only the jumping point for what it means to live a Jewish life. We are allowed to, as generations have done before, to struggle with these laws, disagree with them, hate them, and break them. The words we read are a lot more nuanced when we bring in the oral tradition, Rabbinic commentary, and real life applicability. Taking in all of these levels is what learning Torah is really about. So laugh, cry, shout, and elate as we continue to learn our historical text. Make it your own!


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