Posted on January 28, 2022
Religious vs. Secular in Parashat Mishpatim
There is a natural tendency among humans to search for order in the world, and the search for order includes making distinctions. Judaism has many such distinctions. For example, we separate between meat and milk, between kosher and not kosher, between Shabbat and weekdays. We talk about distinctions and differences, especially in the havdalah ceremony ending Shabbat and beginning the rest of the week, when we say about God: Who distinguishes between the holy and the regular; between light and dark; between Israel and all other nations; between the seventh day and the six days of creative-enterprise.
In contrast, perhaps, to the modern notion of “breaking down the barriers” and the like, Judaism looks for distinctions and separations.
But one distinction that the modern world takes for granted is never made in Judaism, and that is the distinction between the “religious” arena and the “secular” arena.
The perfect example of that is Parashat Mishpatim. Parashat Mishpatim is chock full of rules, ordinances, and statutes, covering a great variety of topics. The laws range from treatment of servants (secular) to not cooking calves in their mothers’ milk (religious) to damages caused by goring oxen (secular) to laws of the pilgrimage festivals (religious) and much more. Civil law and ritual law, and ethical commandments are all mixed together in the Torah. There is absolutely no distinction between the clearly (!) different kinds of laws.
Take, for example, Exodus 22:27: Elohim lo tikalel, v’nasi b’amhalo taor. The word Elohim is usually used as one of the names for God. If we translate that way, the verse reads: “Do not curse God and do not curse a leader of your people,” a law that seems religious.
Interestingly, most commentators, beginning with Onkelos, the Aramaic translation of the Torah that is found along the margin of many traditional printings, translate Elohim here as “judges” rather than as a name for God. The verse would then read in perfect parallel: “Do not curse the judges and do not curse the leaders of your people.” Don’t dis the judge, and while you are at it, be respectful of other leaders as well. Religious? Nah, fairly secular.
Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra agrees that Elohim refers to judges. But instead of looking at this verse as reasonably good advice for getting along in the civil arena, Rabbi Ibn Ezra looks at the context and says that this is about society’s poor. In the verse before we are enjoined not to take a person’s only garment as a pledge for a loan. Ibn Ezra says: “If you were to take a person’s only garment away, that person would be tempted to curse the judge that ruled against him.” In other words, Ibn Ezra does not see this verse simply as a command to respect authority, but rather as a command not to do things to poor people that will cause them to curse authority! So a simple law to refrain from cursing the judge is understood by Rabbi Ibn Ezra as an injunction to care for society’s dispossessed. The law that could have been religious (do not curse God) is read instead as secular (do not curse the judge) and then is interpreted to be religious again by Ibn Ezra (take care of the poor)! But the Torah does not see a difference anyway.
Parashat Mishpatim offers us a model for viewing ourselves as integrated, whole people. Religious law includes civil law; our business practices are the business of our religion. A huge percentage of the Talmud deals with laws of damages and proper business behavior; much of it is derived from this parashah. Likewise, the ethical is part of the religious and part of the civil. We are not religious in services and secular elsewhere; how we conduct ourselves elsewhere is also our religion.