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Navigating Moral Reality: Further thoughts on Mishpatim

Navigating Moral Reality

Further thoughts on Parashat Mishpatim

by John J. Parsons

In general, people don't like to be told what to do but would rather make their own judgments... However the moral rules of Torah may be likened to guideposts along the way, warning us about dangers up ahead. And just as a physical law like gravity describes material reality, so a moral law describes spiritual reality. We can no more deny moral reality than we can deny physical reality, though the effect of violating moral truth is not physical but spiritual - affecting our inner life, our conscience, our sense of value, and so on. In either case, however, we deny reality at our own peril.

Laws of any kind are generalizations, of course. In science, for instance, we inductively sample phenomena and then universalize that experience as a law applicable in all similarly controlled conditions, until proven otherwise. In the case of moral reality, we may have revealed and intuitive awareness of value, but we still must wrestle to discover how to apply such truth to our lives. For example, a moral rule is to always "speak truth," but in some cases this rule can be "broken" for the sake of a more important truth. For instance, we are forbidden to gossip because it hurts other people, and the law of truth-telling may be suspended if we were hiding Jews in our attic and the Nazis asked if we were doing so, and so on (פיקוח נפש). Moral and social rules speak to our need for boundaries, for sacred space, safety, and provide means to show respect to one another. That's the "spirit of the law," the deeper reason for its expression. The "role of the rule" is to promote and upbuild life; a righteous rule helps us discern how to limit and redirect our impulses to express godly character. As is also written in our Scriptures: "You shall therefore keep my statutes and my rules; if a person does them, he shall live by them: I AM the LORD" (Lev. 18:5).

Note: A somewhat mixed case, involving both physical and spiritual reality, is given in our Torah reading this week: "You shall be sacred to me (קדֶשׁ תִּהְיוּן לִי); therefore you shall not eat any flesh that is torn by beasts in the field" (Exod. 22:31). Why not eat such meat? Because it may both cause physical sickness (i.e., disease) while it also violates the dignity of our life, causing spiritual sickness, too.

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