“These are the laws…” Mishpatim for the modern mind
“These are the laws…”
“Primitive, Archaic, Irrelevant, Patriarchal, Old-fashioned,” are just some of the sentiments one may hear from people calling themselves “modern thinkers” when discussing the Torah laws listed in this weekly portion and beyond. Some wonder how a just and merciful G-d could condone slavery, human trafficking, and all levels of vindictive behavior.
I hear you. From a modern perspective alone I would agree; however, Torah and its laws weren’t initially transmitted to our contemporary society. Moreover, at the time of deliverance, many ideas were by ancient times a very progressive way of thinking. Yet, it is our fundamental belief that its laws are transcendental and perpetual. We must learn to glimpse into their constitution to understand their implementation, then see their imperative relevance to the modern-day.
Allow me to illustrate an example from the industry I’m most familiar with – cookery.
They call it a profession, a skill. I always add that it’s a discipline and a religion too. Read on.
You see, our universe is governed by enduring and permanent physical laws. That is why they are called universal. These laws discovered and extrapolated by geniuses like Newton, Copernicus, Einstein, and others are not scientific hypotheses. They are indisputable axiomatic formulas and blueprints of the ways this world exists and operates. Their immediate extensions have laid the foundations for our fundamental and ever-expanding disciplines like chemistry, biology, engineering, electronics, hydraulics, aeronautics, and more.
The science of cooking that deals with modification, preservation, and consumption of the edible substance is one of them, however trivial it might appear in comparison to the above-mentioned sciences.
When I did my basic cooking course 20 years ago, we followed old French techniques rooted in the works of eighteenth-century lawyer and politician Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin. Savarin has been labeled as the ultimate epicurean of the Renaissance period. You could say he was the Moses of culinary art and hospitality.
However, old French cuisine relies on heavy ingredients like fats and flour, and cooking techniques that have either become obsolete or have been modified to suit modern consumers. More durable and affordable utensils have been invented and technological advancements in cooking appliances and equipment have increased speed and production. Our diets and preferences have also changed in proportion to our understanding of dietary properties of the food and our broadened knowledge of world cuisines. People ate what they could without care or knowledge of carbs, calories, or the luxury of asking for special dietary requirements. Were the children of Israel allergic to peanut butter I wonder? In conclusion, the way we cook now is significantly different from the way they cooked then (for the most part).
Yet, one thing hasn’t changed – the molecular structure of food and its reaction to various mechanical and thermal methods of processing.
So, back then chefs were using flour and butter to thicken their sauces and gravies. Now we use lighter corn or rice flour with water. Even if it’s wheat flour – we have learned to extract its most useful component, starch, and discard the rest. In both cases, the final product is a thickened liquid, where molecules of starch are suspended within the molecules of water/stock, resulting in a more viscous consistency.
Back then they would use a bunch of wires coiled together to whisk egg whites. Today we use an electric Kenwood to do a much quicker and better job. In both cases, it is a foam, where microscopic molecules of egg protein (albumen) are dispersed within the air. In culinary terms, we call it meringue.
Not every chef is familiar with the inner workings of cooking processes. Yet, every chef would sound ignorant and ridiculous to deny what we know about the molecular constitution of the edibles and the way they react to various methods and degrees of thermal and mechanical modifications. This cooking metaphor was just an example to bring you closer to understanding a similar notion regarding Torah laws.
There are many things we do not do today that had been in common practice during biblical times. For example, you will not be sold into slavery if you declare bankruptcy. A rapist (G-d forbid) will face jail time in most cultures, not the wedding canopy. You will not legally marry another woman unless you divorce the first one and so on. Times change. Societies evolve. Our norms, behavioral patterns, and expectations progress proportionally. Also, one must note that many of the more controversial laws by today’s standards were merely regulating the common practice of that time. The Torah didn’t invent slavery, the laws simply clarified HOW a slave was to be treated so that a master couldn’t treat another person without regard for human life and suffering; Exodus 21:27 “And if a man knocks out the tooth of his male or female slave, he must let the slave go free to compensate for the tooth.” Yet human flaws, urges and weaknesses are as strong and incessant as before. Hence, those Divine Torah laws that might seem outdated are mere manifestations of perpetual values and practices, designed to discourage malice, face justice, take responsibility for one’s actions, and channel one’s energies for the benefit of oneself and the broader community.
Our challenge today is not so much to see how to apply those laws that seem outdated and irrelevant, but rather to comprehend their intrinsic value and motifs behind them. If you look at them this way, you will understand what lies beneath and come closer to aligning yourself with G-d’s moral judgment. You will also realize that without those necessary predecessors of our current legal system, humanity might not have survived to this day, given the raw brutality and indocility of earlier days.
I think if G-d were to be giving the Torah today, He would need a marketing campaign. If it was up to me, I would suggest following the pitch line “I made you, I know what you are made of. Here’s your operational manual.” In smaller letters I’d add the warning “don’t mess up the engine and internal parts just because you decided to repaint the outside.”