Sunday, February 16, 2020

Mishpatim: Toward a Communitarian Ethics

Those who want to sharpen their minds should study laws of damages, as there is no section of the Torah larger than them; they are like an ever-flowing spring.
-Bava Batra 10:8

This week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, introduces the cases that will form the basis for the Talmud’s laws of damages.  In the first instance, we learn that if you open a pit on your land and leave it uncovered, you must pay restitution if another person’s animal falls into it.  Next, Torah teaches that if your ox is in the habit of goring other animals, you are required to recompense their owner of for any gored beasts.  Similarly, if your herd grazes on another’s land, you must compensate the landowner for the damage.  Finally, if you start a fire that spreads onto your neighbor’s property, you must pay restitution to that neighbor.

The Rabbis applied these principles to a vast array of case law around damages in three tractates of the Talmud: Bava Kamma, Bava Metzia, and Bava Batra (in English: the first, middle, and last gate).  To enter through these “gates” is to explore questions of utmost concern around our response to the existential danger of human-caused climate change.

Bava Batra, in particular, focuses on property rights.  Here in Idaho—and throughout much of the western United States—personal property rights are too often seen as sacrosanct.  This attitude is tied to the malignant myth of rugged individualism, the libertarian notion that everyone has an absolute right to do whatever they wish on their own land, and that dependence upon others is a sign of weakness. Jewish law disagrees.  In the balance that our tradition establishes, individual rights must be weighed against communal concerns—and when there is a tension between the two, the latter usually take precedence.  Thus Bava Batra insists that I refrain from planting a tree on my land if its roots will destroy my neighbor’s cistern.  A landowner cannot open a tannery on his property if the rank odor and pollution produced by that industry would be a nuisance to nearby residents.  Farmers must even consider their neighbor’s needs when deciding what to plant in their own fields—if, for instance, the neighbor is a beekeeper, one should attempt to refrain from sowing crops that make for bitter honey.

We cannot ameliorate catastrophic climate change until we learn to think in a more communitarian manner.  If everyone feels free to do whatever is in his or her best personal economic interest, we will destroy our planet.  We’ve seen this pattern for far too long; indeed, it has already wrought irrevocable harm.  Still, it’s not too late—if we recognize the imperative to curb our individual desires for the sake of the common good.  No one can turn back climate change on their own.  Our very survival depends on our ability to think more like our Talmudic ancestors—in the spirit of this week’s portion.

Divided, we will fall.  To choose life is to choose together, for one another, for future generations, and for all of God’s creation.

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