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Cantor's Comments - Parshat Mishpatim                          January 13, 2021 - 1 Adar, 5781

02/12/2021 01:24:52 PM



I've said a few times before that I want so badly to be done talking about American politics, and it does feel like very soon, that that beautiful day will come when the humdrum of American political discourse will return to being of only passing interest to Jewish Canadians.  But that day isn’t today, especially since it so happens that the parsha we are reading in the Torah this week has something important to say about it.  I’m speaking of course about the impeachment trial, which, other than the coronavirus, has been essentially the only news story being covered this week by just about every news network in both the US and Canada.  

Does the former president of the United States bare responsibility for the capitol insurrection on January 6?  Lead house impeachment manager, and certified member of the tribe, Jamie Raskin, functioned as a prosecuting attorney laying out the case for conviction.  The most compelling part for me, at least, was the 13-minute video that included footage taken from the capitol’s cc tv cameras and various rioters’ smartphones, assembled in chronological order showing how the whole event unfolded, and how it synchronized with what the former president was communicating at that time on twitter.  The video captured the horror of the riot itself, the former presidents own words urging the rioters as well as shouting and chanting from the rioters, themselves, who were echoing the former president and declaring that they were acting upon his instruction.  I also appreciated that Raskin broadened the scope of his analysis of the former president Trump’s behaviour, demonstrating how it related to his claims of election fraud, the attack on the Michigan capitol on April 30th of last year, and the Charlottesville white-supremacist protest back in 2017 where we saw videos of skinheads marching to the haunting chant “Jews will not replace us”.

Though I cannot claim impartiality, I can at least share that the consensus even among Trump supporters, and reportedly even Trump, himself, was that his defense attorneys were disorganized and ineffective at presenting their side of the story.  But the gist of their argument was that politicians must be granted considerable leeway in using hyperbolic, flowery, and even zealous language, because that is the nature of political discourse, and it all falls under the umbrella of protected speech in accordance with the first amendment to the US Constitution.  We are to understand, for example, that Trump’s statement “fight like hell, or you won’t have a country anymore” is meant to be understood metaphorically, and cannot be construed as inciting a specific, planned violent attack.

Though, as I said, I’m not impartial, I can at least admit that the Trump attorneys have made a fair point.  Trump has always used that kind of language, and although it seemed that Trump was directly instructing the mob in light of how the riot unfolded, we can’t ignore the fact that Trump has been saying stuff like this for 5 years, and so far as we can tell, they haven’t been taken literally before… or have they, and we just didn’t want to believe that people would actually act on them?

This week’s parsha is Mishpatim, which means “laws”.  It seems appropriate given that out of the 613 commandments in the Torah, parshat Mishpatim has 53 of them, more commandments by far in a single parsha than we’ve had so far.  But more than that, the term “Mishpatim” refers to the whole category of laws that are inferable, or laws that can be derived from common sense such as the prohibition of accepting a bribe, or against physically striking one’s parents, or cursing God, to name a few.  These are in contrast to the Chukim, or “statutes”, those laws which may not necessarily make perfect sense to us, but we follow them anyways, because Judaism sometimes does that, like the prohibition against eating pork or against wearing a garment that uses a mixture of wool and linen thread.

In our parsha, alongside all of the other laws of common sense, is the prohibition against enticing someone to idol worship.  “V’shem Elohim acherim, lo tazkiru, lo yishma al picha” – “you shall not recognize the names of other Gods, they shall not be heard upon your lips”.  In both the commentaries by Rashi and Ibn Ezra, they seem to be particularly concerned that a Jewish person should not even ask a non-Jew to swear by their god as a way of making a binding promise.  In the Sefer Hachinuch, a rabbinic text that expounds upon the 613 commandments in the order they are given in the Torah, the commentary simply says about this law, “the reason is obvious”.   Of course, it’s a Mishpat, an obvious, common sense law that a theologically based civilization has a rule that says first in the 10 commandments, don’t worship idols, and then in the next parsha, don’t encourage others to do it either.  But what, specifically, does it mean to “entice” someone to practice idol worship?  By what mechanism do we determine if someone was joking, or maybe just exaggerating?  While it is often true that the Torah can be cryptic and lacking in detail when it comes to many of the mitzvot which is where the vast library of rabbinic literature comes into play, in this case, the Torah gives us all the detail we need.  “Lo yishma al picha” – “it shall not be heard on your lips”.  In other words, JUST DON’T SAY IT – no joking about it, no exaggerating, nothing.  Nachmanides even suggests that if you have to use the name of a foreign God for a good reason, perhaps if you’re studying world religions in an academic setting, that we should try changing the name a bit, like saying “Jebus Pryste”.  Yeah, it’s a bit weird.  But like hate speech or inciting violence, if we truly believe that there’s a line that shouldn’t be crossed, then we have to be willing to give up a small piece of our sense of entitlement to say whatever we want whenever we want.

But what about our rights?  How far does this censorship go?  Where do we draw the line?

Admittedly, it’s a bit easier for the Torah to simply forbid specific speech outright.  We must remember that the concept of personal rights and freedoms, such as the freedom of speech, didn’t exist for the ancient Israelites, who instead only understood that they had obligations.  While I hold my religious obligations in the highest regard, I also feel privileged to live in a society that also grants me certain rights and freedoms, including the freedom of speech which I’m exercising right now.  The Torah considers the prohibition against enticing idol worship a common sense law, but if we are not prepared to also accept the unilateral prohibition against certain speech, including joking and exaggerating in the way that freedom of allows me to do, then common sense gets decidedly less common.

Luckily, rights don’t come from Judaism, rights don’t really even make sense in Judaism.  Rather, they come from my Canadian-ism, and Canadianism is not about being accountable to God, it’s about being accountable to other Canadians.  In this context, the system of rights and freedoms works just fine.  If I exercise my free speech which allows me to insult each and every one of my friends, Canada will not throw me in prison, but I am still accountable to my friends who can exercise their freedom to not speak to me anymore.  And whose fault is it?  Mine, of course!  Rights and freedoms are powerful things that form the bedrock of our society, but they are not part of our deal with God.  Instead, they are a part of a deal that we make with each other in that we must be accountable for the consequences that arise out of exercising those rights and freedoms.  If we can’t accept those consequences, then we don’t deserve our rights and freedoms.

Since the US Senate requires a two thirds majority to convict, it would have mean that quite a few Republicans would have to vote with the democrats which seems unlikely.  The acquittal will represent a failure for common sense and decency.  It will, as we have seen, invite future lawmakers to practice these same kinds of rhetorical tactics that are designed specifically to create cults of the self, rather than accountable public servants.  It is a tactic that is, at its core, the modern version of enticing others to idol worship.  If it cannot be legislated away by law, then it will be up to all of us to be on guard for it next time, call it out when we see it, and help each other understand that it goes against who we are as the Jewish people.

Shabbat Shalom,

Mon, July 4 2022 5 Tammuz 5782