Fourteen years ago I wrote of my experiences discussing parashat Mishpatim with some 5th graders at a Reform synagogue. I have certainly discussed the parasha with other students in the intervening years. Interestingly enough, this year I’ve been tutoring some students (at different congregations) in preparation for their celebration recognizing their becoming a bar/bat mitzvah occurring on parashat Mishpatim. (How’s that for a circumlocution to avoid using “bar/bat mitzvah” as a verb?) The parallels between the discussions I’ve been having with these students brought to mind those I had with that class back in 2000. Then, it was a class of fifth-graders. Now, my tutoring charges are in 7th grade. So there are subtle (and not so subtle) differences in the level and type of discussion and the topics covered. Nevertheless, the essence of what we discussed is essentially unchanged from the conversations in 2000. Back then, I wrote:
I had the honor last Sunday of leading a group of fifth graders in Torah study of parashat Mishpatim. Students in fifth grade, in my experience, are still somewhat unfettered enough by societal conditioning that they can and do engage in free inquiry and thinking "outside the box."
Today’s seventh graders that I am working with, simply by virtue of age, but also because of our changing society, are not as unfettered, yet they are still good free-thinkers.
Both then and now, I began by using illustrations from contemporary life to illustrate the essential difference between chukim and mishpatim. They seemed to catch on fairly quickly to the (admittedly simplified) concept that mishpatim generally had some basis in rational thought and natural patterns whereas chukim were rules that, at least superficially, appeared to have no natural or rational purpose behind them. (Back in 2000, with my fifth graders, I didn’t put to fine a point on these things. Today’s seventh-graders forced me to dig a little deeper.)
Before examining some of the commandments in Mishpatim, we tackled the aseret hadibrot (ten commandments/things/words) from last week, working our way through crude distinctions between mishpatim and chukim. (Then and now) they proved fairly adept at the process, although they were already beginning to suspect the existence of gray areas, as their responses grew less certain. As we wove our way into Mishpatim, I took some opportunities to devise logical or natural explanations for some of the commandments that were labeled chukim, further eroding their confidence. (Here, in 2013-14, one student managed to get me into a prolonged discussion of kashrut and the modern attempt to rationalize many of the related mishpatim and chukim. You know, the whole pork/trichinosis thing as ancient medical knowledge, basar b’chalav (meat and milk) as concern for animal cruelty, and other attempts to make the seemingly irrational rational. We came to the conclusion that modern rationalizations only muddied the distinctions further, and weren’t all that useful.) Nevertheless they persevered in attempting to make the distinction. I have to give them credit for being willing to take a stand!
It didn’t come up in 2000, but in 2013-14, at least one of my tutoring students (who went to day school, of course) brought up the subject of the third class of commandments, eidut – commandments that only make sense in light of G”d’s action, and serve as a witness to G”d and how G”d acts in the world. This came up, of course, when the parasha was Bo and we read the Passover commandments before the actual exodus occurs. Are they really a separate class? Is the existence of this class of law an admittance of the potential for any chok to become mishpat at some point? It certainly opens the doors of possibility,
In 2000, I didn't raise it myself-I waited for the question to come up, and, eventually, it did: "so why should we follow the chukim, if they have no rational basis?" (well, I think the student's question in 2000 used different vocabulary, but you get the drift...) Here in 2013-14, the question came up almost at the beginning. Then, as now, lots of interesting answers:
- Because people are generally evil and selfish.
- Because people are dumb and don't know any better.
- Because people can't always see the "big picture."
- Because we might not understand them now, but we might understand them later.
- Because if we know the reason for everything, we might become too prideful (I really thought that was an interesting observation from a 7th grade student)
- Because sometimes “parents” really do know what’s best even if you don’t understand it. (My seventh graders would not agree with this fifth grade observation.)
- and of course, the answer that will always come out: Because G”d said so.
Back in 2000, I was somewhat pleasantly surprised by the support for that last answer from a large group of Reform fifth graders. A few offered the challenge "but what if you don't believe in G”d, should you still follow them?" Without missing a beat, another student answered: "It doesn't matter who wrote them, what matters is that, as Jews, we have a covenant that requires us to keep them."
A few students parroted the idea that "well, we're Reform, we don't have to do any of that." They were definitely a minority, and taken to task by quite a few critical thinkers in the group. One young person said "if you're going to say some commandment doesn't make sense so we don't have to follow it anymore, you have to first see if you can figure out why it might have made sense then." "But what if it didn't make sense back then," said one. "Yeah, they were already making mishpatim and chukim different from the beginning," said another. A third commented "back then, they knew they were supposed to do what G”d told them to do, and not to talk back!"
Without any prompting from me, another student said: "But what about the mishpatim that don't make sense any more? They might have been natural to the Israelites, but now we know better."
Sadly, back in 2000, we ran out of time to take the discussion much further, but I suspect (and pray) that many of those students kept asking these questions and thinking these critical thoughts, and even, when critical thought failed them, considered resorting to faith. They had good questions and good comments.
Here in 2013-14, things got a little deeper. “What do you do,” asked one tutoring student, “when modern science contradicts what has traditionally been thought of as a mishpat? Does that then make it a chok? Can they change? Could a chok become a mishpat? Isn’t that sort of what the getting sick from pork bacteria thing does?” Wow. When does a rationalization become reality? When does reality become fantasy (i.e. in the realm of chukim) or even rationalization?
Another student also studying parashat Mishpatim wondered “what if G”d put some of those chukim in there just to test us, to see if we would blindly follow irrational commandments? Does G”d really want us to follow them, or does G”d expect us to rise above that and not just be obedient sheep?” (Yes, a seventh grade student really said that!) We continued the discussion, exploring the idea that G”d had maybe expected us to weed out the silliest of the chukim from the beginning, and, as our knowledge of the universe increased, simply dump the ones that became meaningless in the face of what we came to know. The student made a comparison to the “test” of the akedah, the binding of Isaac. She even suggested that perhaps G”d was just toying with us, “putting us on” as it were – and just waiting to spring a “gotcha” on us for the practical joke. “Ha! Got you silly humans to follow all of those crazy commandments! What a hoot! April fool!” Ah, young minds. I have to admit, this last one really got me to thinking. G”d as trickster, as Loki, the fox. There’s a musing just waiting to be written. I’ll put on my list.
If I learned one really great thing from these all these young students, it is that even among students from truly liberal backgrounds, the idea of "na'aseh v'nishma" is alive and well. They are willing to entertain the idea of a world in which chukim are observed, even though they apparently have no rational basis. On the one hand, the scientist in me worries about that tendency to be willing to accept the observance of potentially irrational commandments, on the other hand, the spiritual me is glad that people remain open to possibilities, and do not automatically assume that our mastery of science makes us masters of the universe. Instead of “humans plan and G”d laughs” maybe we should say “humans investigate scientifically and G”d and the universe laugh.”
We, ourselves, would do well to think about all these questions about chukim, mishpatim (and eidutim,) and see if we can do so with the freedom and creativity of the mind of a fifth, or even a seventh grade student. How does one differentiate between chukim and mishpatim? Are the lines clear or fuzzy? What do we do with a mishpat that followed known nature at the time but has since been outdated? Why keep those any of the commandments? In particular, why keep any of the chukim? Do the chukim all have some obvious natural basis that we just not enlightened enough to understand? Do we keep them because we are covenanted with G”d and for no other reason? Do we keep them so that we may come to understand them, in the spirit of na'aseh v'nishma? That is our task this Shabbat-to ask these questions, and not be afraid to answer them. We must not be afraid to take a stand.
©2014 (portions ©2000) by Adrian A. Durlester
Other musings on this parasha:
Mishpatim 5773 - No One Mourns the Wicked
Mishpatim 5772-Repairing Our Damaged Temple
Mishpatim 5771 - Getting Past the Apologetics
Mishpatim 5770 - Divine Picnic
Mishpatim 5769 - Redux 5757/5761 Change from the Inside
Mishpatim 5768 - Justice for All
Mishpatim 5767-To See, To Behold, To Eat, To Drink
Mishpatim 5766 - Mishpatim with a Capital IM
Mishpatim 5765-Eid Khamas (revised)
Mishpatim 5764-Situational Ethics
Mishpatim 5763-My Object All Sublime
Mishpatim 5762-Enron Beware!
Mishpatim 5761-Change from the Inside
Mishpatim 5760-Chukim U'mishpatim
Mishpatim 5759-Eid Khamas-Witness to Violence