God's Core Issues (Extract)

Extract from an essay in Issue 21, February 4, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. The Torah portion Mishpatim, Exodus 21:1-24:18, is read on Shabbat, February 2 "You ask questions," he said. This was many years ago, and the senior rabbi was trying to teach the student intern something about the work. "You ask questions about all sorts of different things. And you listen carefully. For...?" "The answers?" the student offered. Sigh. Another slow one. "You are listening for the energy. At some point one of your questions will hit home. You'll stumble onto some hurt, or fear, or joy, or desire that is central to the person. And it's then that you really have to pay attention, because that is when you're hearing something from the core." "But how will I recognize it?" "Listen. Listen to the energy. When people are speaking from the heart they let you know. All you have to do is listen." The senior rabbi's advice is good for reading the Bible as well, particularly this week's portion. Some technical language will be helpful. Scholars note that laws are sometimes stated as categorical absolutes, without context or reason or consequence: Do this; don't do that. These are called apodictic laws, the classic example being the Ten Commandments, but in Mishpatim we see a very different formulation. Here, the laws are driven by context, by cause and effect. "If this happens, then this is the result....In this circumstance, this is what you should - or should not - do." These are called casuistic laws, and though the content of the two kinds of law may not be that different, compare "Thou shalt not murder" with "He who fatally strikes a man shall be put to death. If he did not do it by design, but it came about by an act of God, I will assign you a place to which he can flee" (Ex. 21:12-13). Apodictic language sounds "religious," while casuistic sounds like, well, law. But look what happens a little later on in the list: "You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall not ill treat any widow or orphan. If you do mistreat them, I will heed their outcry as soon as they cry out to Me, and My anger shall blaze forth and I will put you to the sword, and your own wives shall become widows and your children orphans" (Ex. 22:20-23). This is still technically casuistic law, but what a difference in the tone, in the energy. This is God speaking from the heart. We are so used to the Bible's anthropomorphisms that we scarcely see them. But what does it mean that God has "core issues," buttons to be pressed that trigger Divine anger? And what does it mean that the One God, who the tradition insists is not only unique, but unified, has more than one? "I the Lord your God am a jealous God" we read last week, and over and over in the Bible if there is anything to which God is sensitive it is unfaithfulness. Unlike all the other transgressions for which God may demand punishment, it is these two - infidelity to God and cruelty to the weak - that God seems to take personally. Contributing editor Rabbi Joshua Gutoff teaches and studies in New York. Extract from an essay in Issue 21, February 4, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.