I have little love for a G”d that seeks to compel righteous behavior through threat and intimidation. In the haftarah for parashat Mishpatim, G”d does just that. However, there’s something different about this particular invocation of the threat in our haftarah for parashat Mishpatim.
As a young child, I was enthralled with a Broadway musical which contained important and hopeful philosophical messages – Lerner and Lowe’s “Camelot.” Then, when I was a young teen, a movie version came out, renewing my interest in the topic, and in a particular bit of text. At the same time, I took on a curious assigment, voluntarily, of reading and writing a report about Thucydides “History of the Pelopennesian War.” In it, an impressionable young man discovered one of the earliest potential sources of this bit of theatrical text which had struck such an important note (if you’ll forgive the pun) in his developing philosophy of life and how to live it.
“…since you know as well as we do that right, as the world .goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.” (Thucydides, History of the Peleponnesian War, Chapter XVII, Richard Crawley translation)
This is probably the earliest known expression of the “might makes right” philosophy. At the dsame time, inspired by the recent movie version of “Camelot” I was inspired me to read the work of a contemporary author. In his book, written thousands of years after Thucydides, T.H. White fantasized a legendary King Arthur saying:
"Why can't you harness Might so that it works for Right?" (T.H. White, The Once and Future King, Book 2, Chapter 6, pg 254)
It is at this point that Merlyn realizes that Arthur is learning all those lessons he tried to teach him in book I, constantly confronting him with bullies and others espousing the “might is right” philosophy. Thus, a cause, a philosophy was, at least in this fantsay history, born.
The bit of text fom “Camelot”which I hadI encountered and taken to heart was written in 1960 by Alan Jay Lerner, who had massaged the two competing philosophies into the phrase we all know today, and which I found so profound as a child:
“We'll make it a great honor. Very fashionable! Everyone will want to join! Only now, the knights will whack only for good. Might for right. Might for right. Might - for - right. That's it, Ginny. Might. No, not might is right. Might - For - Right!”
The tension between the competing “might IS right” and “might FOR right” philosophies is as strong today as it ever was. I have always considered myself unabashedly in the “might FOR right” camp. However, that has never been a totally comfortable position.
In “Once and Future King” when Arthur effectively reinvents the idea of civil law, he places at its base the idea that “right is right.” White’s Arthur was, I believe, and as I am, essentially a pacifist. Arthur wearied of having to fight for right, and dreamed of a world where right was simply right. Thus the tension in “might for right.” That is a philosophy that lies dangerously on the edge of a precipitous slope. It can leads to colonialism and manifest destiny, or the US as the world’s police.”Might is right,” on the other hand, as Darwinianlly realistic as it might be, is, to my way of seeing things, inherently not just.
Unlike today’s youth, I grew up in world where the memories of WWII and the Shoah were still relatively fresh, Knowing people who bore concentration camp tattoos was a reality in the Jewish community. My father fought in WWI, albeit in the Pacific theater of operations. So the idea of a “just war” was not a alien concept. In some ways, that made being an opponent of and protester against the war in Vietnam easier – for there was little that could be said to be just about that conflict (except in a very twisted domino-theory logic.)
Today’s youth have to contend with the realities of a war based on a false premise (weapons of mass destruction,) wars based on bring democracy to countries that actually leave them worse off than before. Worse than that, we have conflicts in which the preponderence of “right” is unclear. (It’s no wonder so many young Jews are confused about their relationship to Israel. I will agree that Israel, more often than not, does go out of its way to try and pursue its self-defense and agressions in as just a manner as possible, and that Israel’s enemies often engage in tactics that simply cannot be considered just even under the most extreme conditions of hardship. However, Israel is not without blemish in this whole situation. I don’t want to make this about the whole situation vis a vis Israel and her opponents, so I’ll move on.)
Even I, with the knowledge of the realities of WWII (and earlier wars and atrocities) have become distanced from the concept of a just war as a result of all that has transpired in the last half of then twentieth century and the first decade-and-one-half of the twnety-first.
Then I read the haftarah for Mishpatim, and my thoughts cloud up again. Not because I embrace the concept of a G”d that uses fear to compel righteous actions. I don;t think I’ll ever be able to do that No, it is the righteous cause that G”d is championing in these 15 verses from chapter 34 of Jeremiah. (I’m going to ignore that tacked on verses from chapter 33 – they are there only to give the reading a “happy ending,” a literary tactic employed by those who compiled the haftarot that absolutely drives me crazy.)
The cause is the manumission of indentured Hebrew slaves every 7th year. True, it ony applied to Hebrews who were slaves (or, as many apologetic commentaries put it, indentured servants.) Actually, now that I think about it, the Torah doesn’t command manumission – that is a concept from the Talmud, which, by the way, lumped Jewish and non-Jewish slaves under the rules, and eliminated the 7-year limit, but gave slave-owners the right to free their slaves. (So both a high and low moment for Jewish ethics.) What the Torah commands in not manumission, it is,plain and simple, complete release and freedom from slavery, for any Hebrew slave, after 7 years, or in a Jubilee year. Not so for non-Hebrew slaves.
(Though the rabbis were, in many ways, very attuned to issues of fairness, i.e. their efforts to make capital punishment difficult to use, when it came to slavery, they largely missed the boat. Yes, they prohibited the returning of an escaped slave. But they lumped Jewish and non-Jewish slaves into one category, and eliminated the 7-year limit. The rabbis have never been able to embrace –and perhaps with some good reasons – the simplicity of philosophy as expressed by the likes of Augustine, who said, plainly, that right is right. The rabbis were too invested in grey to embrace black and white.)
Setting aside the inconsistent treatment of Jewish and non-Jewish slaves, fighting for justice for enslaved people is a cause for which I might be persuaded that the use of might for right is appropriate. So this haftarah inspires me – to a limited extent, to be passionate for the idea of might for right.
In the haftarah, part of what angers G”d and drives G”d to threaten the people through Jeremiah is their duplicity. They agreed to follow the commandment to release their slaves, and did so, and then went back and made them slaves again. So this is willful disobedience after a promise to follow a commandment after they had already broken it once.
I’d like to believe that the US was inspired by justice in the Civil War, or the Russian people inspired by justice in the Revolution, alas, the true histories reveal that underlying causes and motives were far less altruistic.
In the 1920s, 30s, and 40s, Gandhi fought for India’s independence from colonial rule. In the 50s and 60s, people fought for Civil Rights for people of color. Funny, how we use the term “fought” when these were, for the most part, non-violent movements. Might is not always required to achieve right. It helps, to be sure. Might, however, can be simple superiority of numbers, or superiority of patience.
As it was in pre-Revolution Russia, issues of inequitable wealth and power distribution are stirring up people in our country. I believe there is a champion out there, a prophet, hoping to right this wrong. But this is not about politics.
Through Jeremiah, G”d threatened to bring down ruin upon the people if they did not follow G”d’s commandments, and in particular, those regarding the treatment of slaves. We may not need (or believe) the threat of G”d, yet the possibility exists that if we do not mend our ways, then ruin will descend upon us. Whether or not you accept G”d as the actor, the same results and consequences may play out in any case. Attributable to G”d’s action or not, inequity, injustice, and more often than not will yield a world that is worse off.
There is much in our world today that is not just. If we do not fight for right, then what befalls us may not be pleasant. I think the key discovery is, for me, that one can “fight” for right in ways that are non-violent, or, at the very least, involve minimal agressive action or use of force. In the US today, the most important non-violent force we have at our disposal is our vote. If we heed the words of Jeremiah, we must wield that power to do what is right and just in G”d’s eyes (or, if G”d doesn’t motivate you, in the eyes of humankind.)
A day may come again when we may need to employ phyiscal might for right. (To some extent, that day is already here again – for this is the dilemma that plagues Israel.) We have made some attempt at this. We sought to avenge/revenge the wholly unjust attacks of 9/11/2001. Arguably, our attempts to do so have only empowered and encouraged our enemies. Plus, in the process, we employed some non just tactics of our own.
I’m an avid reader of science fiction. Augthors of the genre with positive outlooks often posit a future in which we have overcome our need to employ physical might to enforce what is right and just. I pray for a future when this comes true, and I pray for a present when we strive to make this future our present. Ken y’hi ratzon. Ken y’hi ratzoneinu.
©2016 by Adrian A. Durlester
Other Musings on This Parasha:
Mishpatim 5775 - Revisiting Situational Ethics
Mishpatim 5774 - Chukim U'mishpatim Revisited
Mishpatim 5773 - No One Mounrs 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