Between Law and Revelation, Transcendence and Immanence – Parshat Mishpatim 5775

Parshat Mishpatim 5775 

“וְכָל-הָעָם רֹאִים אֶת-הַקּוֹלֹת וְאֶת-הַלַּפִּידִם, וְאֵת קוֹל הַשֹּׁפָר, וְאֶת-הָהָר, עָשֵׁן; וַיַּרְא הָעָם וַיָּנֻעוּ, וַיַּעַמְדוּ מֵרָחֹק”

“And all the people saw the thunderings, and the lightnings, and the voice of the horn, and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they trembled, and stood afar off (Shemot 20:14)”

After such an event how can we come back down? How can we get on with the banality of our day to day living?  After the imprint of the divine encounter is there any way we can reclaim our human living?  Is the true religious experience found through escaping and yearning for a mystical or spiritual encounter, or is it aligned to a very determinate legalistic construct of Halakha-law?

These are the very questions our Parsha comes to address.  Though the Torah is not written as a philosophical book, within its pages we detect deep theological and philosophical messages, one of which I want to suggest is at the heart of this week’s Torah portion.

Last year I spoke about the interplay of human creativity versus divine authority in the law as seen by the strange placement of the civil laws immediately following the revelation.  Coupled with this I think the empahsis placed by the Torah on feelings of empathy towards the ‘other’  in the ‘Mishpatim’ narrative warns us of the disconnect between ritual and ethical behaviour, as unfortunately we are exposed to in the Jewish world more and more.[1] But I think there is an added message that underlies the tension between revelation and law that I want to develop this week utilising the paradigm of Rav Soloveitchik’s Halakhic Man.

Parshat Mishpatim stands between two narratives of revelation.  The first we read in last week’s parsha the greatest epiphany of all time, so overwhelming in fact that the people themselves cannot stand it and ask for Moshe to intervene and take over from God (20:16).  The revelation comes with content.  Ten laws that are set in stone.  Non-negotiable fixed, rigid – dictates for all time.  The second account of revelation comes at the end of Parshat Mishpatim (chapter 24) where the text relays another covenantal ceremony comprising of the people’s acceptance of the yolk of heaven, and Moshe and the elders ascending the mountain again.

In the middle of both of these revelatory accounts lies a narrative listing rudimentary civil laws.  Not what we would expect to follow immediately after the dazzling narrative of Sinai.  They seem at dissonance with the fire and light shows that surround them.  In fact they appear to be highly anti climactic, a sudden crash down from the high of the heavenly experience to the basic laws of everyday life.  Included in the list are laws concerning Israelite slaves (Eved Ivri), penalties for bodily injuries, death or damage caused by an animal, covering of a hole/pit inside of one’s property, stealing of livestock, damages, laws surrounding safeguarding of objects or property, borrowing, seducing a virgin, responsibility for the oppressed(chapters 21-22).  This is a list of laws that govern the day to day lives of people.  They are neither to do with transcendence, or mysticism. They make no mention of higher spiritual realm, or a heavenly reward.  They are laws that govern society and that create a structure for a just and fair social order.

It is exactly this unexpected structure that endows Judaism with its uniqueness.  The juxtaposition of these two seemingly antithetical narratives teaches us much about the Torah perspective of balancing two extreme perspectives that express themselves in many variants -In law and revelation; The human desire for transcendence and the mundane reality of this world; The search for the infinite and the recognition of  our own immanence; the infinite and the finite; the mystical and the rational; the experiential and the practical; the eternal and the temporal. All these tensions are at the very heart of our faith, and have been at the cornerstone of much debate amongst Jewish sects and thinkers from time immemorial.[2]  It is this gulf, this vast abyss between God – the infinite and transcendent, and man – the finite and immanent, that creates a great tension beckoning to be resolved.  Its resolution can be through mystical yearnings that quests to find the secret of our existence.  Or it can be through a total denial of anything beyond, a rebuttal of all things transcendent and an absolutist claim that what exists is what we see, that man is the be all and end all of existence.  Neither of these two options are totally satisfactory.  They create a quick easy solution to an impossible dichotomy and hence lack any authenticity.

On the one hand, inherent in the fact that the mystical ineffable encounter of Godliness that was experienced at the mountain is immediately followed by a list of civil laws, lies the message that our encounter with the divine is not to be found in some ethereal realm but in the mundane action of life lived in this world. To sanctify my daily routine, the realm of my business dealings, the treatment of those subordinate to me is to bring divinity and sacredness in all its manifestations down to earth.   On the other hand to focus solely on the practical, ethical-humanist side of reality and law is to create a society bereft of transcendence or higher purpose, whose laws will eventually become meaningless and relative.  Humanity, civilisation, needs both human practical and pragmatic reasoning to administer the dictates of the laws, and equally a reverence and deeply founded appreciation of the transcendent component of these laws.  It needs Parshat ‘Yitro’ and Parshat ‘Mishpatim’.  There needs to a dialectical tension between the two.

Rav Joseph Soloveitchik in his seminal work ‘Halakhic Man’, presents a profound reflection on Jewish life.  He sets up a paradigm of what the ideal Halakhic personality should be.  Using typological methods he sets out two personality types, cognitive man and homo religiosus- religious man.  In describing cognitive man we hear echoes of modern scientists and rationalists, who are focused on the immanency of this world seeking to understand its workings through laws and principles- he is tied to the structures and limitations inherent in existance seeking neither ephemeral realms or notions of transcendence.

Homo-religiosus is intrigued by the mystery of existence.  He is not satisfied existentially by a worldly existence and hence yearns for a holy and sacred realm.  He is unhappy in this world and hence desires hidden things and divine secrets.  There exists for him a dual reality that sees this world in all its bestiality and banality as a pale image of another more ideal existence.

So what is Halakhic man? Where does the ideal Jewish life fall? How should man approach his reality according to Rav Soloveitchik?  The answer that Rav Soloveicthik gives is that Halakhic man resembles far more cognitive man, the scientific rationalist than religious man – the spiritual mystic.  In describing Halakhic man Rav Soloveitchik writes:

Halakhic man’s approach to reality is, at the outlet, devoid of any element of transience……when Halakhic man approaches reality, he comes with his Torah, given to him from Sinai, in hand.  He orients himself to the world by means of fixed statutes and firm principles.  An entire corpus of precepts and laws guides him along the path leading to existence…..Halakhic man takes up his position in this world and does not move from it. He wishes to purify this world and not escape from it. (Halakhic Man p19-41) 

Halakhic man is the antithesis of the mystic.  As Rav Soloveitchik points out Halakhic man and typical religious man move in different directions.  Religious man starts in this world and ends up in the supernal realms, whilst Halakhic man declares that the higher longs and pines for the lower.  He remains rooted in this world bringing the Torah and all its precincts down to earth.

There is one particular paragraph in the book that speaks exactly of the challenge we set out at the start;  The tension that exists between the yearning for a divine fervour and the banality of our day to day life. Though in the end his claim is that in Judaism no tension actually exists:

That dualism, so prevalent in other religions, which distinguishes between the man who stands before the Lord in an atmosphere suffused with heavenly solemnity and the man driving a hard bargain with his fellow in the marketplace, is totally foreign to Halakha….Halakhic man does not compartmentalize reality-this is the domain of eternal lode and this is the domain of temporal life.  On the contrary he brings down eternity into the midst of time…..Homo religiosus praying in his house of worship, prostrated on the cold stone floor (….) is not at that moment a this worldly man, possessor of riches and chattels, estates an factories who drives his impoverished workers ruthlessly, and whose hands are often stained with the blood of the outcast and the ill gotten gain wrung from the hands of the unfortunate.  For him the world of prayer and the world of reality have nothing to do with each other…..the man in the sanctuary and the man in the marketplace are two separate and distinct personalities who have absolutely nothing in common with one another.

(Rav J.Soloveitchik: Halakhic Man p93 )

I can’t help but smile when I read how Rav Soloveitchik describes this ‘religious’ personality type that sets Halakhic man at such a great distance from typical homo religiosus, for it is proved through the very Torah portion we read this week.  But yet at the same time, I am also forced to question the emphasis with which Rav Soloveitchik describes Halakhic man as a rational almost scientific personality, much like cognitive man that in many ways leaves little room for any elements of transcendence.  In an attempt to limit man’s impulsive and passionate nature, he focuses the religious experience on the concrete empirical reality of this world. Though there are references to moments of transcendence, they are few and far between. [3]  Halakhic man is far removed from the mystical encounter of Sinai and deeply in touch and embedded in the legal intricacies of ‘Mishpatim’.  It is an understandable stance, a danger that the Torah itself warns of, the danger of aligning religion with mysticism, but this approach also has its setbacks.  It loses an element of mystery that even in creating a just and lawful society we must not ignore.  It negates the essence of the Mitzvot that can lead to a very meaningful and fulfilling encounter with God. In other words, to respond to Sinai through focusing solely on the encounter and losing ourselves in our journey to the ephemeral spheres is not what God desires.  Equally to focus only on the law and all its constructs, to make it only about man and not about God, is not a desirous response.

So revelation at Sinai and the covenantal ceremony in chapter 24 creates a framework that both metaphorically and literally wraps itself around the civil laws of Mishpatim.  Revelation and religious praxis do not stand in solitude, detached from any context.  Both are contextual, both linked to something other than itself alone. They are inextricably tied together in a dialectical tension that sits at the very heart of our religious life. In the words of a quasi Chassidic modern theologian, A.J. Heschel:

This is one of the goals of the Jewish way of living: to experience commonplace deeds as spiritual adventures, to feel the hidden love and wisdom in all things.  The sense of wonder and transcendence must not become ‘a cushion for the lazy intellect’.  It must not be a substitute for analysis where analysis is possible; it must not stifle doubt where doubt is legitimate  It must however remain a constant awareness if man is to remain true to the dignity of God’s creation, because such awareness is the spring of all creative thinking. (A.J.Heschel: God in Search of Man p51)

The mystery should not be the source of our escape from this world, it should be at the centre of our religious practise.  The wonder of Sinai and the ordinariness of Mishpatim should sit side by side creating a sense of wonder in the commonplace, empathy in the suffering of the other and divinity in the law.

Shabbat Shalom

[1] There is a fascinating article by Rabi David Shatz in a book dedicated to R.Shalom Carmy called ‘Rav Shalom Banayikh’ where he questions at length the apparent disconnect between those who are stringent on ritual observance but display morally questionable actions.  He analyses why this happens and suggests that a singular emphasis on rules as opposed to empathy with the suffering of the other, may be a cause for such behaviour.  This made me think about the fact that many of our commands to aid the oppressed are followed by an apparent disclosure ‘for you were slaves in Egypt’ i.e. you yourself must empathise with the suffering of the other, since you yourself too went through such an experience.  Here the law is not just for fulfilling because of the divine command (as Y.Leibowtiz would claim) but also because of the ethical component of it, that should sensitise the individual to the suffering and hence needs of the other.

[2] Essenes v Pharisees, Sabbateanism v Rabbinic Judaism; Chassidim v Mitnagdim, mystics v rationalists

[3] There is startling difference between two of the Rav’s central writings – Halakhic man written in 1944 and The Lonely Man of Faith written in 1965 some twenty years later.   In the latter work Rav Soloveitchik moves decidedly away from the cold, almost Kantian like persona he describes as Halakhic man and presents the man of faith in a much more personal existential way.  He uses typologies again with Adam1 and Adam 2, but here he places the man of faith as oscillating between these two individuals and two communities, never at peace, never fully redeemed.  Adam 2 replicates in many ways Homo Religiosus, but whereas in Halakhic man he rejects this aspect of the religious personality, in the Lonely Man of faith he affirms it.  There is much debate amongst scholars as to why there is such a dissonance between the two works, one understanding is that writing in 1944 he was still deeply influenced by the more rational Brisker tradition of his father and grandfather.  After the death of his wife and having been exposed to other thinking and life experiences, in 1965 when he writes the Lonely Man of Faith, he recognises that man’s relationship to God is not only through the rigid and cognitive structures of Halakhic reasoning,  but also through more existential yearnings and passions and ultimately a dimension of faith that cannot be translated into categories of human reason.

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