Contrary to widespread misconception, Jewish law is not merely about ritual matters, but totally encompasses the civil dimension as well.
This week’s Torah portion is Mishpatim (Exodus 21:1-24:18), loosely translated as “Civil Law.” And as you probably have guessed, this week’s reading lists many, if not most, of the laws that make up Judaism’s code of civil law.
Contrary to widespread misconception, Jewish law is not merely about ritual matters, such as keeping the Sabbath or eating kosher food; Judaism completely encompasses the civil dimension as well.
When two Jews enter into a financial dispute, for instance, they are obligated to take the matter to a Beit Din, a Jewish Court of Law, for arbitration. Jewish law differs from civil law in many ways – and sometimes surprisingly so. For example, according to Jewish law, parents are generally exempt from paying for any damage caused by their children. In most cases, however, civil law does require them to pay. So, too, Judaism obligates owners to pay for damage caused by their dogs, while civil law will often exempt pet owners from such an obligation. These laws can be found in the Talmud and were later centralized in the Code of Jewish Law in the Civil Law section.
What is the importance of Jewish law, and why should Jews follow it? Let’s take a look at our reading this week. It begins with God telling Moses: “And these are the civil laws that you shall place before them…”
The commentators quickly point out that just as the Ten Commandments – the subject of last week’s reading – were given at Mount Sinai, so, too, the entire body of civil and monetary law was given at Mount Sinai.
This is an important reminder that the laws of the Torah are unlike the laws of any other body or country. While everyone is obligated (by Torah law too!) to observe the laws of the countries in which they live, these laws are, of course, man-made, having been created by human beings, legislated by (usually) democratically elected people and enforced by the population. Jewish law, on the other hand, is God-created, God-legislated and “God-enforced.” Indeed, the Almighty watches everyone and everything, and He is faithful to reward those who follow His laws.
As mentioned, while secular law might exempt a pet owner from paying for damage done by his dog, a God-fearing Jew would be well-advised to pay for such damage because the Torah tells us that this is the right thing to do. Imagine the reward that God has in store for a person who had been exempt by local law from paying for a certain type of damage (not to mention that such damage and costs might be completely unenforceable by the police or bailiffs), but nevertheless went ahead and paid for the damage simply because the Torah says that he should!
Indeed, the commentators further teach that the words “…you shall place before them” in this week’s Torah reading are a message to each and every Jew to be sure to observe these laws even when not enforced.
The Jewish legal system commands each and every individual to ponder God’s will when pursuing justice. By doing so, we not only remain good citizens of the countries in which we live, but we also set ourselves to a higher standard.
As the saying goes, by fulfilling the requirements of Divine law, we “answer to a higher authority.”
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