Mishpatim (Laws)

MishpatimExodus 21:1 to 24:18

God gave Moses 613 laws. ordinances and rules for the Israelites to observe. All the people said “All these things we will do!” But can the people comply with all the laws? The Reform Jewish Movement has an answer.

Last week we read about the Israelites receiving the Ten Commandments. In this week’s parsha they begin to receive the mitzvot (laws) that bring the Ten Commandments of God into the community. These mitzvot cover all facets of life in the Israelite community – laws defining treatment of slaves, captives, and employees – capital crimes including murder, kidnapping, and abuse of parents – remedies for bodily injury – proper treatment of the disadvantaged in the community – obligations to God – the religious calendar – and more.

A great deal of material covering all facets of life has been put before the Israelites. Their response: “All the things that the Eternal has commanded we will do!” (Ex. 24:3) Tradition tells us that all Jews were spiritually at the Sinai experience. All declared they would obey all the laws.

Is this still the way we, as Reform Jews, see the 613 mitzvot commanded in the Torah? The Statement of Principles from Reform Judaism: The Pittsburgh Principles adopted by the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) in 1999 stated the following:

“We respond to God daily: through public and private prayer, through study and through the performance of other mitzvot, sacred obligations (bein adam la-Mabom) to God, and (bein adam la-chaveiro) to other human beings.”

“We are called by Torah to lifelong study in the home, in the synagogue and in every place where Jews gather to learn and teach. Through Torah study we are called to mitzvot, the means by which we make our lives holy.”

“We are committed to the ongoing study of the whole array of mitzvot and to the fulfillment of those that address us as individuals and as a community. Some of these mitzvot, sacred obligations, have long been observed by Reform Jews; others, both ancient and modern, demand renewed attention as the result of the unique context of our own times.” (Richard N. Levy, A Vision of Holiness – The Future of Reform Judaism, 2005. pp. xvi-xvii)

As far back as the late 1800’s the leaders of the Reform movement felt free to shape their religious lives. After study they chose which laws they wanted to shape their lives. The 1885 Pittsburgh Platform stated:

“Today we accept as binding only the moral laws, and maintain only such ceremonies as elevate and sanctify our lives, but reject all such as are not adapted to the views and habits of modern civilization… We hold that all such Mosaic and rabbinical laws as regulate diet, priestly purity, and dress originated in ages and under the influence of ideas altogether foreign to our present mental and spiritual state….Their observance in our days is apt rather to obstruct than further modern spiritual elevation.” (ibid, pp. 115-6)

For many years, including the mid and late twentieth century, the accepted mitzvot were chosen by the community… while others were rejected. In general, the ethical laws were accepted – those regarding murder, theft, treatment of other people in the community…. However, many ceremonial laws were cast aside. Examples include the wearing of kippot, tallit, and tiffilin. Many Reform Jews also chose to ignore the laws of kashrut.

In the late twentieth century there was a move back to acceptance of many of the laws that were rejected. Many Reform Jews looked at these “outdated” laws and saw personal meaning in them. They felt that these mitzvot could bring them closer to the holy life they desired. The kippot and tallit reappeared with greater regularity in more and more Reform Temples. More Reform Jews adopted the dietary laws in whole or part. The havdalah service became more common. To many these “outdated” symbols had meaning and increased their religious experience…. An individual choice was made.

Change was not mandated by a governing body; but, by the individual. This change came through study and then a choice to observe. The choice is made to observe a particular mitzvah because it had personal meaning. Then, as with traditional mitzvot, that person is committed to fulfill the mitzvah.

This is a major change! The Traditional path regarding mitzvot is “I will do as the Eternal has commanded.” If a particular commandment is not followed now, it is said to be fulfilled in the future….. The Reform path is …. First study the law, study the Torah… Select those mitzvot that have meaning and bring an individual closer to God – closer to a life where holiness is a goal. … Make a commitment to observe the selected mitzvot.

As study increases, another step is added. New mitzvot or commitments can be added where none existed before. Examples can be seen in the dietary laws. In recent years the concept of ethical dietary law has become more common. This includes humane treatment of animals beyond the “food factories” so popular today…. And only purchase of foods produced by farm workers who receive “living wages” to produce the food.

This path of study … choice of mitzvot … and observance is now the Reform Jewish way to everyday holiness.

Earl Sabes
Image of “Man With Phylactery” by photostock as shown on FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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