These are the rules that you shall set before them.
Jewish wisdom does not follow a partisan political platform. While my personal politics incline (mostly) toward progressivism, I recognize that our tradition offers its share of teachings and opinions that echo the ideology of classic conservatism. Judaism is too old and vast to follow any single party line; look closely and within our sacred texts you can find a vast array of views that include radicalism, moderation, socialism, capitalism, and almost everything in between.
There is, however, one perspective that is noteworthy in its absence: anarchy. This attitude, which asserts that the best government is, essentially, no government at all, is often where the far left and far right meet. We don’t see it in our Jewish tradition because it is anathema to the very foundation of our culture. Jewish life is built upon the rule of law—a system of mitzvot, of legal and ethical obligations. Long before Thomas Hobbes described life without government as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short,” our Sages taught: “Pray for the welfare of the government—for without proper respect for governmental authority, people would swallow one another alive.” It is worth noting that the government under which the Rabbis lived was hardly benign. They endured brutally oppressive Roman rule—yet they still saw this as a better alternative than anarchy. Our Sages would have been deeply shaken—as we all should be—by the anarchic (and not coincidentally anti-Semitic) takeover of the US Capitol just a few weeks ago.
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 an example dear to my heart: If we want to create justice for our state’s LGBTQ 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 an eclectic assortment 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 the Jewish people, law is love and life, these legal matters are of utmost spiritual significance.
In the Mussar tradition, the opposite of anarchy and chaos is the midah of seder, meaning spiritual order. The significance of this character trait can be gleaned from the Hebrew word, which lends its name to both the order of the Passover meal and the siddur, the prayer book that contains the “order” of our daily and holiday liturgy. As Alan Morinis notes in Everyday Holiness, Mussar is a practical discipline that draws upon this trait, and sees it as essential to both functional daily life and divine service. Chaos is an impediment to a meaningful, intentional life; order helps make this path possible. Morinis concludes: “Order helps create an inner sense that the things that matter have been properly arranged and tended to and, as a result, that the details of life are under control. Calm and unworried, at that point the channels to the divine will are open and unencumbered as they can get, and the possibility of serving—and happiness---will have become real for you."
Mussar Practice for this Week (from Every Day, Holy Day)
Begin each morning with the phrase: First things first and last things later
Then try to set one thing in order every day this week.