This week’s Torah portion Mishpatim contains more than 50 of the 613 commandments. And as the Torah is written with no vowels and no punctuation, every sentence, every word, of all of those commandments have a multitude of interpretations. Judaism and Jewish scholarship is alive with debate and discussion about exactly which interpretation should be given to any one passage. Almost all the texts which have been compiled and written since the Torah have been concerned with understanding exactly what it is God wants from us, and deciding how to implement the laws. This is the journey of the Jew, to discover what God’s hopes and dreams are for the world, and to work to make them a reality. So how do we know which interpretation is correct?
In the Torah Moses asks God how the people will know who is a true prophet. God replies that they should not rely on signs and wonders because sometimes God will give false prophets the power to perform signs and wonders to test us. Instead we should look at the message that the prophets are giving and be sure that it is consistent with the intent and message of the rest of the Torah. It is not enough that they appear to have God’s truth, if they are spreading a message which is inconsistent with the spirit of the Torah then we know that they are not to be followed. It is the same with the laws and interpretations, we need to be looking at the spirit behind the suggested understandings as well as the literal reading of the text and be sure that it is consistent with the overall message of the Torah.
If we look at the commandments, we would expect there to be a large number about faith, belief in God, theology, but actually they number very few. The large majority of the commandments are concerned with the way in which we treat one another. They call upon us to care for the vulnerable in our communities, to share what we have with those in need, to be kind and compassionate. The refrain over and over is to remember that we were slaves in Egypt, to remember what it is like to suffer, to be oppressed and to be sure to never treat others in that same manner. And it is with this in the forefront of our minds, with this spirit, that we should be understanding and interpreting the multitude of laws and directives in our tradition. It is imperative that we consider the people and not just the letter of the law, to ensure that we apply them with compassion and love of humanity.
Sadly though, when we look to Israel, we hear more and more stories of people interpreting the laws of the Torah to spread hatred, fear and discrimination. Advocating for buses where women and men are to sit separately, areas where there is a footpath for men and one for women, condoning the assault of a woman because she had marks on her arm left from laying tefillin, a woman attacked and arrested for carrying a Torah, a call not to rent or sell property to anyone other than Jews, people being physically attacked in charedi neighborhoods because they are not deemed to be strict enough in their adherence to the laws, young people murdered for visiting a center which counsels and supports people who are gay. How can any of these acts sit together with a Torah that promotes tolerance, harmony and love between people? The same Torah which reminds us over and over again to remember that we were slaves in Egypt, to remember what it is like to be oppressed, treated with cruelty, and commands us to care for the stranger, the orphan and the widow, because they are dear to God? They cannot. And we must not stand by and allow our tradition to be used to condone violence, bigotry and hatred, not in the Jewish homeland and not in our own back yards. We must be advocates for the Torah, for its holiness, its goodness and the true spirit in which it was given; as a means for us to change the world for the better, to bring harmony, justice and peace. We must continue to love and support Israel whilst at the same time speaking out against these crimes against the Torah, against God, against human beings. And where we see it here in our own communities too we must speak out, be the voice for the other interpretation, the reading which is consistent with our values and what is at the heart of the Torah: to love God by loving humanity.