The Spirituality of Law

February 6, 2016 — Parashat Mishpatim
Edited from the spoken manuscript


I have come today to share the “good news” with Conservative Jews. What good news you might ask? Surely your Facebook feeds and your kiddush conversations could not have missed one of the most momentous legal decisions in the history of the Conservative Judaism! Yes, this November:

the Committee on Jewish Law & Standards,
the “Supreme Court” of the Conservative Movement,
in a landslide, 19-1 decision (with two abstentions)
issued a teshuvah — a Jewish legal opinion —

— that permits Ashkenazi Jews to eat kitniyot – rice, corn, and legumes – on Passover!

The mashiach is surely not far behind.


Now forgive me for being glib. For some of you who wished you were born Sephardic, this is probably great news. But all the excitement surrounding this decision makes leaves me underwhelmed for two reasons. Firstly, for those of you who are quickly re-arranging your Seder menu in your head, this is not an compulsory decision for the movement. Like when conservative justices in the our Supreme Court adjudicate in favor of “States’ Rights,” our Conservative Law committee has always favored “Rabbi’s rights.” Most law committee decisions, as such, only expand the halakhic possibilities for each rabbi and community, but do not dictate the decisions that those rabbis or communities should make.

But the second and more important reason that I’m underwhelmed about this is that the matter seems — and you’ll forgive me for saying so — slightly trivial. All of the hullabaloo to me lends credence to the narrative — and some of you have thought this before — that Jewish law is mostly irrelevant, or more so deals primarily with ritual — who is Jewish? is something kosher? what prayers do we do? Few of us here are yet clamoring to hear about our movement’s decisions regarding immigration ethics, gun control, tax reform, education, or environmental stewardship.  We sense that these are secular concerns decided by secular courts and legislatures — and Jewish law is at best, academic, and at worst, disconnected from many of our daily ethics beyond our simply ritual concerns.

Now, a report from the front lines: Between 2012 and 2014, I served on the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, though I can take no credit for your ability to have rice and beans at your seder. For those of you who are interested, the Law Committee is made up of 25 rabbis, 5 United Synagogue lay representatives, and one non-voting, cantor.  And after two years of serving on the committee, I must admit that…I loved it. It was one of the coolest and most spiritually engaging things at I have done.

But why? How can the vagaries of contemporary Jewish legal discourse be a spiritually engaging experience? What does Jewish Law have to do with spirituality?


This week’s parashah is Mishpatim, one of the largest collections of Bilblical law in the entire Torah. When we think about religious law, often we fall into one of two big traps. We either think that religious law is esoteric, or that it is humanistic.

What do I mean? On the one hand, we might say: The Torah came from Sinai — it is 100% revealed by God without any precedent in human experience. Its authority derives exclusively from God, who, in discreet human language, revealing His secrets for living to us. That’s the esoteric position .

On the other hand, we might say: The laws of the Bible are basically the legal codes of human beings trying to muddle through life as best they could at the time. The whole “religious” aspect to them is pretty much given by those with power so that the laws have “authority.” Most of these legal positions are a product of their environment, flawed as it was, and “religious law” is, at heart, a thinly-veiled, rationalized version of secular law. That’s the humanistic position.

What’s important here is that both the esoteric and the humanistic positions lead us to think that Jewish law has very little to say to us — whether it’s because the case that it’s “all from God” seems too authoritarian or intellectually dishonest, or the case that it’s all from human beings leads us toward moral relativism. I want to suggest one version of a “third way.”


Dr. Umberto Cassuto was a great scholar of the Bible, and of archaeology of the surrounding cultures in Ancient Near East, and in his Exodus commentary he writes extensively about about law at that time. And he says some very remarkable things:

  1. All of ancient Israel’s polytheistic neighbors —- Babylonia, Assyria, Sumer, indeed the whole Mesopotamian region — had exclusively secular legislation. Laws in these cultures were not decreed on behalf of “the gods” or any divine entities. There were practical manuals for how to worship the gods, to be sure. But the authority for law was based in purely human terms, either by the strength of precedent or invested in the authority the king. In the end, the prevailing tradition was humanistic, human-based, secular
  1. The laws of the Torah differ entirely from those of their neighbors— in that such laws were not promulgated in the name of any earthly authority or king, nor even in the name of Moses, but as Cassuto puts it “religious and ethical instructions in judicial matters, ordained in the name of the God of Israel.”  We may take this for granted, but idea that laws came from heaven in the first place is a powerful, original Jewish idea.

Now this might take us back towards the esoteric position — after all, what makes our Biblical legal tradition distinctive is that these laws come from God! But Cassuto brings a third, important  observation:

  1. That the Torah quotes and is filled with secular legislation that parallels the laws of its neighbors. Looking for the Code of Hammurabi? You can find its language in the Torah. Hittite and Assyrian law? Also in there. In many Biblical stories, we find evidence of the same type of secular law tradition, with Israelite kings making their own rules, just as we found in surrounding cultures.

Now the pendulum seems to swing back towards the humanistic position — after all, the Torah is filled with legislation parallel (or quoting) to the laws of the day in polytheistic society!

But — the Torah does something fantastic.

It transforms the laws of the day into responses to experiencing God.

The law of the day (in the code of Hammurabi) said that there’s an “eye for an eye” — measure for measure – but only for people in the same social class. The Torah took this further, and said that this law applies universally — that everyone is equal under the law, for all are in God’s image.

The laws of the day (also in the code of Hammurabi) said that your intentions didn’t matter —  if you killed somebody, whether by accident or on purpose, the punishment was the same — death by vengeance. But the Torah outlines rules for unintentional crimes – why? because the God of Israel knows what is in each person’s heart.

The laws of the day in Mesopotamia made most people slaves for life. But the beginning of our reading today tells us that a slave may serve six years, and must go free in the seventh, without having to pay a cent. Why? because the Lord took us out of the house of bondage. We went out free — for nothing at all. So too must our slaves go out free. For only a free people can serve a free God.

We see that Torah takes the spiritual experience of the Jewish people — encountering God, experiencing his redemption, seeing his love of justice and care for the powerless, — the Torah takes that experience and re-forms the law around it, bringing into alignment with the people’s spiritual experience.

Our Torah is not esoteric, far from us and hard to understand, nor is it purely humanistic, the best guess of an ancient folk, but it is theomorphic —  taking the raw material of life, and refining it to be in alignment with spiritual values and the Jewish experience of God.


And that, ladies and gentleman, is why I loved being on the Law Committee. Because no matter how mundane the subject matter, every Jewish legal text is a window into an experience of God. Want to live out God’s compassion? Follow Beit Hillel and his rulings. Want to live out his justice and holiness? Follow Beit Shammai. Whether talking about the or kitniyot on Passover, whistleblowing in the workplace, medical ethics, or Torah reading for the blind (all of which there are Jewish legal opinions about), every topic open possible windows into who God is in each moment or question in our lives,  and invite us into relationship with him.

So practically, to invite yourself into a relationship with G-d through Jewish law, I want to recommend to you, two things, especially if you like to spend time online:

  1. Spend some time at — despite my glibness, there are actually many AMAZING teshuvot on many of the topics that I just mentioned, and more, and which tell uplifting, intriguing, and even contradictory stories of who God is and what it means to respond to his call. Some of these are rich with legal language, to be sure, but they are the product of amazing intellects with great insight into the heart of Judaism.
  2. If you like podcasts (which I do), I highly recommend subscribing to Mechon Hadar, an egalitarian, New York based center for Jewish learning, which puts out amazing podcasts and that will make you rethink your Jewish life.

Now a parting thought — and this is perhaps my most important point today:

Just as the laws of the Torah didn’t come out of nothing, so too do we not come to Judaism as blank slate. Many of us think that to be “religious” or to experience God, we have to either forget everything we ever knew and have God re-make us from scratch. Or, on the other hand, we expect God will simply be a big teddy bear and say “yes” to everything we ever wanted. The Torah shows us that neither of these are true. If God were all or nothing — if he were an unchanging legalist or a bobble-head doll, he wouldn’t be someone you could have a relationship with.

So like the Torah  itself, maybe you don’t have to change all of the “secular” parts of you — your dreams, your tastes, your essence — to have a relationship with God. Maybe you might find the experience of God giving you a direction to parts of your life that you didn’t expect. And like any relationship, like the Torah’s laws themselves, maybe you can allow yourself to be vulnerable enough to be changed.


Ribono Shel Olam, Greatness of the Universe, who picked so lowly a people for so great a destiny, help us to look at your laws as love letters from your essential self. Help us to let go of black and white thinking, so that we can truly be in a relationship with you. May we embrace that your law comes from experiencing your great love, as we pray each day — ahavat olam beit yisrael am’cha ahavta — that through your law, you have loved us with an unending love.