Faith vs. Action in the Jewish Tradition Parashat Mishpatim


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In the portion of Yitro, we read the lofty words which describe the revelation of God at Mt. Sinai:  “If you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all the peoples… but you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:5-6);  “I am the Lord your God… You shall have no other gods… Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy… Honor your father and mother… You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal” (20: 1-14).  Furthermore, these lofty words were uttered in a very impressive fashion:  “All the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the blare of the shofar and the mountain smoking” (20:15).

In this week’s  Prashat Mishpatim, we seem to have descended from the lofty heights to the lowly valleys.  The portion lists a hodgepodge of mitzvot:  the Hebrew slave, damages, an eye for an eye, the goring ox, money lending, false testimony, the Sabbatical year and more.  What is the connection between these picayune laws presented without order or structure and the lofty revelation at Mt. Sinai?  Indeed, throughout the centuries, many have tried to separate the two portions.  The Sages had to remove the Ten Commandments from the liturgy “because of the heretics so they would not say that these alone were given to Moses at Mt. Sinai” (Yerushalmi Berakhot 1:5).  The early Christians rejected most of the commandments, retaining only the ethical ones at the end of the Ten Commandments.  The Reform movement in the nineteenth century tried to separate the “heavenly” Covenant from most of the “outdated” commandments.

Finally, two Kibutznikim wrote to Chaim Nahman Bialik ca. 1930.  One wanted to prepare for Pesah “without wallowing in all those religious ceremonies”, while the second explained why the Ḥalutzim go out to work the fields even on Shabbat:  “Shabbat was the strength of the Jewish people in previous generations”, but now “all feeling has died in that regard”  (Shmuel Rosner and Camille Fuchs, Yahadut Yisraelit, 2018, p. 37).

Not so our ancestors. They understood that there is an integral connection between the two Torah portions which expresses the natural symbiosis in Judaism between belief and commandments, between revelation and action.  As it is written in the book of Devarim (4:12-14): “The Lord spoke to you out of the fire… He declared to you the covenant that He commanded you to observe, the Ten Commandments… At the same time, the Lord commanded me to impart to you laws and rules for you to observe”.  And so we read in the book of Nehemiah (9:13):  “You came down on Mt. Sinai and spoke to them from heaven; You gave them right rules and true teachings, good laws and commandments”.

In other words, according to these sources, both the Covenant as well as the portion of Mishpatim were given to Moses at Sinai. Why so?  Because Judaism understood from its inception “that the Torah is not in Heaven” nor was it “given to the ministering angels”.  Faith and practice are two sides of the same coin called “Judaism”.  Classical Reform Judaism in the 19th century reasoned that it is possible to observe “pure faith” without being weighed down by the “baggage” of mitzvot.  But abandoning the mitzvot frequently leads to assimilation and intermarriage. Jewish Socialists thought that it’s possible to observe the ethical commandments without the foundation of the Covenant and Faith, but the death of Socialism and the increase in materialism and selfishness in Israeli society prove that actions without faith are like a body without a soul.  Classical Judaism, on the other hand, believes in what the Jewish people said in our Torah portion (24:7):  “We shall do” – the commandments, “and we shall listen” – to the theology.  Without Yitro there is no Mishpatim, and without Mishpatim there is no Yitro.  Without faith there is no action, and without action there is no faith.

Indeed, Bialik wrote to the first kibutznik:  “one does not invent the holidays… celebrate the holidays of your forefathers, and add to them a bit of your own”.  And to the second he wrote:  “Eretz Israel without Shabbat will not be built but rather destroyed, and all your effort will be for naught” (Rosner and Fuchs, p. 38).

Recently, Shmuel Rosner and Prof. Camille Fuchs published a fascinating book in Hebrew entitled Israeli Judaism: A Portrait of a Cultural Revolution, based on a  survey of over 3,000 Israeli Jews.  I want to cite a few statistics from their book relevant to our topic:

94% eat apples and honey on Rosh Hashanah;

91% eat latkes or sufganiyot on Hanukkah;

90% of parents with daughters did/will do a Bat Mitzvah of some sort;

82% eat dairy foods on Shavuot;

82% have a family meal on Shabbat;

76% hide the afikoman at the Seder;

73% light candles every night of Hanukkah;

67% fast all day on Yom Kippur;

66% do soul searching on Rosh Hashanah;

64% keep kosher at home;

62% make Kiddush on Shabbat.

Of course, there is a big difference between most of the first items which are late customs and the rest which are Biblical or Rabbinic commandments.  But in any case, at least two thirds of Israeli Jews agree with the portion of Mishpatim and with Bialik: Judaism consists of actions, not just of beliefs.  It is not enough to believe or to think; a Jew must do.  This is the message of Parashat Mishpatim;  “And they said:  Everything which God has spoken, we shall do and we shall listen to it” (24:7).

Rabbi Prof. David Golinkin is a Professor of Jewish Law at the Schechter Institute in Jerusalem and President of The Schechter Institutes, Inc.

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