11 years ago, I visited the topic of situational ethics, relating it to parashat Mishpatim. I thought it might be a good time to revisit and revise those words.
A May 2014 Gallup poll revealed that 28% of Americans believe the Bible is the actual word of G”d and meant to be taken literally. (This is down from the 1970s when that percentage was closer to 40%.) 21% of Americans view the Bible to be "an ancient book of fables, legends, history, and moral precepts recorded by man." 47% consider the Bible "the inspired word of G”d- but not everything in it should be taken literally." That middle group has had a few ups and downs but has been relatively consistent over time. As Gallup reports, if you combine the “literalists” with the “inspired-by-ists” that’s still a whopping 75% of Americans who see the Bible as having a connection to G”d.
There are some in the religious community for whom the very words "situational ethics" are anathema. Many people of faith are looking for definitive answers to questions of behavior, morality, and ethics. In some ways I find this troubling.
Many proponents of particular faiths have proclaimed over the years that their faith does indeed provide an un-shatter-able bedrock from which definitive moral and ethical values can be derived. The problem is, of course, that people still disagree over what those bedrock values might be. For some, any kind of killing is wrong. For some, only murder is wrong (though some with that view approve of state-sanctioned murder as just punishment for the crime of murdering another.) Were things so clear from the Torah, would we even need the Talmud, the commentaries, and more to help us discern and understand what some of these so-named bedrock ethical principles really are? Thousands, perhaps millions, of words have been devoted to explaining and illuminating the supposedly crystal clear meanings of the biblical text. While some hold that Halacha (Jewish law) as we now understand it was given to us at Sinai along with Torah, I have a difficult time accepting that premise. Yet, even if we accept that premise, the fact remains that there was and still is disagreement amongst the rabbis and scholars about many aspects of Halacha. Our sacred texts are replete not only with definitive statements, but conditional ones as well. They are replete with arguments and disputes. If these arguments are disputes are mi-Sinai, what does that say about the definitive nature of some of these commandments and ideas?
Noah, the “sort of OK for his own time” guy. The notion that permission to eat meat came later than creation. The many ethical lapses of our patriarchs and matriarchs. Abraham certainly makes a plea for situational ethics when it comes to S’dom and Gomorrah. Joseph saved the Egyptians from starvation but made many of them effectively feudal slaves in the process. Moses lied to Pharaoh about his true intentions: “Nah, we just wanna go out into the woods for a few days and pray to our G”d and then we’ll be back.”
Given all these things and more, I think it is important to look at the idea of situational ethics and how it may be supported in biblical text.
Now, fan that I am of situational ethics, even I am not immune from the idea that religion and the bible might be able to provide some sort of solid ethical bedrock. Decades ago, when applying for admission to Vanderbilt Divinity School, I wrote in my application essay of my disappointment with a society that has a moral compass that seems to conveniently point to whatever magnetic north is in fashion at the time. I sought, through the study of theology in general, and more importantly, of my own Jewish religion in particular, that I could find a true north, that elusive bedrock, that immutable source on which at least a rudimentary set of ethics and values could be built. (I’m not sure that, even at that time, I was seeking a truly universal, immutable ethical code, for I believe I have always found situational ethics were necessary for any functional society.)
I suppose that, to some degree, my search for ethical bedrock has been partially successful. There do seem to be a few boundaries that I can accept as being derived from some basic understandings of G”d's Torah. Some of these are universal in character, and could, indeed, probably be derived from nature and exist in a world without G”d and religion. Others are more particular to Judaism and Torah (and I am surely thankful for that. There have been times in my search for meaning that I began to despair of finding value in a particularistic religious faith.) There are ideas in the Torah which may not be "common sense" in a broad understanding of the word, but, within the context of a Jewish understanding of the universe, are common sense.
Then again, the search has also been rather unsuccessful. The deeper one goes and the more one studies Torah and Judaism, the more apparent it becomes that "lo bashamayim hi" (the Torah is not in heaven) is a double-edged sword. For some it means that the p'shat, the plain meaning is apparent, and is all we need for understanding the Torah (and thus G”d’s) meaning. I have also discovered that edge of the sword can be sharp and cut you when you least expect it. For others, "lo bashamayim hi" means our complete freedom to continually try to understand and (re)interpret the text in ways that make sense in a current context. That edge, too, is quite sharp and can leave one cut just as easily as the other edge.
The more I study Torah, the more I grow both more enlightened and more baffled. Boundaries I once thought hard and clearly defined turn out to be amorphous. And boundaries I once thought permeable and osmotic now seem impenetrable. Where, in all this, is the bedrock?
Well, here's a radical thought. Maybe the "bedrock" is the clear understanding that our anchors can be hauled up and later dropped in another location to again hold us fast for a time. Certainly, throughout our history we have done this? What is rabbinical Judaism if not an attempt to deal with the sea change imposed by the destruction of the Holy Temple? And modern liberal Judaisms are similar in their attempts to see if maybe we need to shift our anchorage.
I used to think of this as the “rubber band theory.” Some in Judaism see Torah as a fixed point, A rubber band stretches out from a pole at that fixed center to encompass new ideas, new knowledge, new technology. However, in this view, there are limits to how far the rubber-band can stretch before it breaks. Others allow for a movable pole from which the rubber band stretches, to allow for how new ideas, new knowledge, and new technologies have reshaped our understanding of Torah. I’ve always struggled a lit bit with this analogy, because I realize that when you move the pole, some things that previously fit inside the rubber band’s boundaries may no longer be encompassed. This led to the ship and anchor theory, because when the ship moves, it can carry with it its cargo to the new harbor. I’m not sure either analogy truly works, and I still search for a better one.
But I digress. The idea that boundaries can change, ships can move, poles can be relocated, of course, leads to that slippery slope of "situational ethics." But is it all that slippery a slope? Parashat Mishpatim gives us an opportunity to consider alternatives.
Just look at the incongruity. Here we are, multitudes freed from oppressive slavery to Pharaoh. And yet, what do we find in parashat Mishpatim, with our first inkling of some form of codified principles for individual and communal behavior, standards, ethics and morality? A series of commandments designed to insure fair treatment of slaves.
Our modern sensibilities are confused, even offended by this. "How," we ask, "can the Israelites continue a practice like slavery when they have just be freed from it?"
The apologist's first defense of this uses the explanation that we must not think of slavery in those ancient times in the same way as we do the slavery of the past few centuries. "It's more like voluntary indenture," they say. And there are plenty of other explanations and workarounds designed to soothe our sense.
Balderdash, I say. Let's call it like it is. The Jewish people have a great history of being practical. Both the Torah and the rabbinic writings are replete with examples of this. (For an really obvious rabbinic example, one need look no further than Hillel's "prosbul" designed to circumvent the laws of the sabbatical year for the sake of commerce.)
So here's how we redeem this particular bit of supposedly irredeemable text. What's going on in the Torah here in Mishpatim regarding slaves is--------drumroll--------------------situational ethics!!!
The lessons to be derived from these teachings in these times is likely different than it was in ancient times. Forms of slavery were a societal norm. Our ancestors accepted that, yet felt compelled to work to insure fair treatment and justice for all segments of their society, slaves included. (There's some discussion as to whether or not these commandments pertained to non-Jewish slaves, but that's a discussion for another time.)
In ancient times, the people needed these reminders to treat even their slaves with dignity and as human beings. Based on the anchorage our ancestors had chosen, slavery was not an ethical dilemma. What was important was recognizing that slaves, too, were part of G”d's creation and merited fair treatment. (Shades of the midrashic story of G”d’s admonition to the angels for rejoicing when Israel crossed the Sea of reeds to freedom, that they ought not forget all the Egyptians who drowned.)
We've shifted anchorages. For most people in the world today, slavery, even of the indentured servitude kind, is no longer considered a morally and ethically accepted practice. (Is this is because slavery in our time and recent times in, invariably, implemented cruelly, unfairly, and unjustly? Would our society accept voluntary indentured servitude? Voluntary slavery? Imposed slavery that wasn't cruel or oppressive? These are questions not as simple to answer as one might think.)
Yet the commandments in Mishpatim are no less applicable for us today. The application is simply different. It's situational. Aside from those who, sadly are slaves, even in this day and age (and such conditions do exist throughout the world, even here in the U.S.) there are those whose lot in life could see them suffering the same injustices and cruelties as slaves. The homeless, the poor, the minorities. The Torah's commandments on how we should treat our slaves are easily transferable.
It isn't necessarily easy to make the shift. We have little need to drive an awl through the ear of a slave who chooses voluntarily to remain with his master so that he may stay with his family. Yet we can gain some understanding about the importance of allowing someone to remain with his family despite circumstances.
I can't promise, right off the top of my head, to try and make similar connections for all the commandments regarding the treatment of and justice as applied to slaves that we find in this parasha. Yet I am sure that it can be done with study.
Is it really correct to refer to what our ancestors did in the Torah as situational ethics, when, for them, slavery may not have been against moral imperative? For me, it is. I think that if one digs deeply into Torah, one can find the necessary support to argue that slavery is morally and ethically wrong. This being the case, I suggest that our ancestors were indeed applying situational ethics.
For me, the whole joy of Torah is our ability to turn it and turn it, and continue to find news ways of understanding her. And that, for me, is a kind of situational ethics. It need not be anathema to those of faith that even moral imperatives commanded by G”d ought to be adjusted as needed to adapt the changing circumstances. G”d did not put us in a steady-state universe. (Though recently, some scientists are finding proofs in quantum theory that the big bang hypothesis could be wrong and the universe might not have had a beginning and might not have an end.) And G”d has shown a bit of a learning curve as well. Which leads me to my final thought for this musing, one that I have expressed many times over the years, though I have refined the wording over time:
A G”d that cannot and does not change "its" mind cannot possibly be G”d.
There. I said it. Some of you are probably ready to lump me in with heretics like Spinoza, but I daresay that this understanding of mine is at its core, Jewish. Care to argue?
©2015 (portions ©2004) by Adrian A. Durlester
Other musings on this parasha:
Mishpatim 5774 - Chukim U'mishpatim Revisited
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 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