These are the rules that you shall set before them. (Exodus 21:1)
I believe that Jewish tradition contains strands of nearly every significant political philosophy. Therefore, while my personal politics clearly incline (mostly) toward liberalism, I have no doubt that one can be an equally good, authentic Jew while embracing conservatism, radicalism, moderation, socialism, and even authoritarianism and theocracy.
There is, however, one perspective that I see as completely anathema to Judaism: anarchy. This is where the extremes of left and right meet, asserting that the best government is, essentially, no government. In Jewish tradition, human civilization is founded—and still depends—upon the rule of law. In its absence, life is, as Thomas Hobbes wrote, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Or, to quote Rabbi Chanina in the Talmud: “Pray for the welfare of the government—for without respect for governmental authority, people would swallow one another alive.” It is worth noting that Chanina’s government was hardly benign; he lived under brutally oppressive Roman rule—yet he still saw this as better than anarchy.
For Jews, law makes life possible, and, at its best, it raises us up as individuals and communities. At every level—from families to neighborhoods to synagogues to nations—just laws create and maintain just societies. In our culture, we insist that belief follows behavior. To change your beliefs and suppositions, you start by changing what you do in the world. And the best way to change behavior is to change the law. To offer a timely example: If we want to create justice for our state’s LGBT community, you don’t say: “We’ll add the words after we teach everyone to love one another.” Instead, we slowly, imperfectly—but inexorably—teach love by making it the law, even for those who don’t (yet) love.
This week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, is at heart a collection of laws dealing with a vast array of topics, civil and criminal and ritual, holy and mundane. At first, it seems a far cry from the spiritual heights of last week’s parshah, where God speaks to the Israelites from Mount Sinai. But since, for us, law is love and life, these legal matters are of utmost spiritual significance.
And so, as you make your way through the week, consider: how can rules and guidelines make your seemingly-ordinary interactions more sacred, successful, and meaningful?