Mishpatim Exodus Chapter 21.1-24:18 08.02.13 Lordship and Bondage

Mishpatim Exodus Chapter 21.1-24:18                                             08.02.13

Lordship and Bondage

by

Howard Adelman

 

Introduction

This commentary focuses only on the first 11 verses of chapter 21 of Exodus of the parashah “Mishaptim” dealing with relations between a master and a servant. I save that commentary until Part II. In order to understand what informs the laws defining that relationship, I begin with a prologue as a commentary on the first three commandments in the Mishneh Torah, the code of Jewish religious law (Halakha) authored by Maimonides, the laws that define how man lives in bondage to God, his Lord and Master. Part III then analyzes the key characteristics of each of those relationships, the similarities and the differences.

 

Part I   The First Three Commandments in the Mishneh Torah

 

The timing of my commentary on the Mishneh Torah is appropriate since this past week Lubavitchers once again began the cycle of reading and studying the Mishneh Torah, the outstanding codification of the laws of the Torah derived from the Talmud. For Haredim, Maimonides is known as “haNesher haGadol”, the great eagle, but in my university world, he was Rabbi Moshe Ben Maimon (RaMBaM, for short) or Mūsā ibn Maymūn in Arabic. In university, I was taught that the Rambam was the philosopher who offered an Aristotelian view of Judaism to the Jewish world, influenced as he had been by the Muslim, Ibn Rushd, or Averroes as he was generally known, an interpretation probably under the influence of Leo Strauss’ Persecution and the Art of Writing. Thus, Averroes and Maimonides prepared the ground for Thomas Aquinas and the Thomist Aristotelian interpretation of Christianity. At the same time, in summarizing Judaism and boiling it down to thirteen first principles, Judaism had been Christianized and dogmatics made part of Judaism. That was the spotted intellectual history which I had inherited of that period.

 

Micha Goodman is a rising star in Israel. He has a new best selling book on Maimonides’ Secrets of the Guide for the Perplexed. One surprise is that a book on biblical commentary could become a best seller. I have not yet read Goodman’s book; it has still to be translated into English. But I did spend some time one Yom Kippur with him at Ein Prat, his Academy for Israeli Leadership between Jerusalem and Jericho where my granddaughter, Ariella, lived, studied and worked for two years and with whom I was spending the High Holidays. We discussed philosophy generally with some reference to Maimonides. Micha had just finished his PhD thesis on Maimonides at the time. I do recall that he told me that what I had been taught about Maimonides was incorrect.

 

Rambam was presented by Goodman as revolutionary, not for introducing Aristotle into Jewish biblical interpretation, but for insisting that Judaism taught that God was NOT part of nature. Man, made in the image of God was in part not as well. Judaism taught the principles of revolution against masters and tyrants and the proper relationship between masters and servants – the topic of tomorrow’s portion of the Torah. Jews are on earth to remake the world; man’s destiny is a messianic project.

 

According to Goodman, the Rambam taught Jews, not how the Torah resolved their perplexity, but that perplexity was the human condition. Jews should be inspired to see puzzlement and puzzling through as their primary mission. Hence Maimonides was almost a postmodernist in which hermeneutics is all, not to get at THE secret message behind the esoteric writing à la Strauss, or to get at the true rational message à la Yeshayahu Leibowitz, but to invite us all to engage in hermeneutics of the text as an essential part of engaging in the hermeneutics of life.  

 

Thus, unlike Leibowitz, whose lectures I sat in on when I was a visiting professor at Hebrew University in the late seventies and whose Dialogue on Faith and Philosophy I still have to read, for Goodman, God could not serve as a guide to the perplexed since God was unknowable and a transcendent Being beyond the descriptors of language which were the divine tools that God bestowed on humankind to deal with perplexity but could not be used to know God. We worship God in all His majesty, if I recall Goodman correctly, to offset idolatry and our propensity to treat the extensions of our bodies and minds, of our creative impulses, as divine because, though we have language and are made in the image of God, we are also still part of nature and not divine. Nothing we make can be characterized as divine and worthy of worship, only that which is beyond human reach. This did not make God into a heuristic tool to teach humans modesty. Instead, God is the sine qua non, in Kant’s terms, the a priori condition of our freedom. God can redeem us and must be our redeemer for, without the prospect of such redemption by someone who is wholly other, we are bound to slip into idolatry.

 

So Maimonides was a revolutionary in teaching that what we make of this world is up to us, but what we make of this world is what WE make of it and cannot be considered worthy of reverential worship, as God must be, whether those things are ideas or political systems or our view of other persons or groups or objects in the world.

 

I also recall Goodman objecting to theodicy which began when we discussed the thesis on Job by one of my post-docs, Michael Kigel, when I was at YorkUniversity. Micha was passionate about his opposition to theodicy, that is, an absolute obedience and subservience to God’s will. For Goodman, the adjectives of good versus evil or all-powerful versus powerlessness, were not appropriate to understanding God. God was beyond such characterizations. Maimonides’ construction of an order to Jewish law through an Aristotelian rational process was intended, not to provide a dogmatic core to Judaism, not to provide a dogmatic canon for Jews, but to show that our job was to develop such rational constructions in law and politics and science — all subject to critical analysis and discussion. But such a construction was not created de novo from trying to discover first principles, as if we were looking to find the holy grail on which to ground certainty as in Descartes or Spinoza, but out of a respect for and understanding tradition and our past. The future grew out of the past and our job was to understand and help this process take place. I believe this was Goodman’s take on Maimonides philosophy of history. The expression I inscribed in my memory was that memory was not there to reify the past but to help construct the future. (On this remembrance of what Goodman believed, I invite correction because my memory is very faulty.)

 

With that introductory remark, and before I examine Exodus Chapter 21.1-24:18, I will discuss the first three commandments in the Mishneh Torah.

 

1. Know that there is a God; “I am God, your Lord.” (Exodus 20:2)

2. Unify Him; “God is our Lord, God is one.” (Deuteronomy 6:4)

3. Love Him; “And you shall love God, your Lord.” (Deuteronomy 6:5)

The first three commandments instruct us to know that there is a God, to unify Him and to love Him.

If God is unknowable to us and if even partial knowledge is beyond our ken, how can we know that there is a God? How can you recognize not only what you do not know but what you cannot know? In any case, why would someone command knowing that something exists? We would not think of commanding someone to recognize that an orange exists. Further, it is that which we are obligated to know exists that is doing the commanding. But if we are being commanded by another to know that the other exists, we must know that the other exists to recognize that we are being commanded. Further, the first commandment of the Mishneh Torah commands us not only to know that God exists, but that which we are instructed to recognize as existing is our Lord. So the effrontery of it all! We are not told that God exists but are commanded to know that God exists by the very party that demands the recognition not only of His existence but the recognition that He is the Lord and Master of all we survey, including ourselves.

We have the following difficulties:

  • We are given a command about recognition so that recognition becomes an ethical demand and the issue of existence is removed from the realm of scientific considerations
  • The author of the command to do the recognizing is the same party who is to be recognized
  • The commandment to recognize God exists is, at one and the same time, also a commandment to recognize that God exists in relationship to oneself as a Lord and Master

 

No wonder Maimonides wrote Guide to the Perplexed. If we were not perplexed before we opened the book, the first command leaves us in a deep state of puzzlement. So if you read like I do rather than the compulsive way I do crossword puzzles each day, you skip to the next commandment. What does it say? You are commanded to unify God. This character who demands you recognize his existence, who must exist if we hear the command, who demands we recognize that He is our Lord, now commands us to take responsibility for making him one. He is the Lord but we have the duty to unify Him. We are even told how – by recognizing Him as One. Did we know that He was many? Well that at least could be understood for God had more names than any member of a royal family we ever encountered.

 

We already have been told that God, YHWH (he who shall be), is Adonai, not just Adon, indicating God is a plurality, so the commandment that God should be recognized as One makes some sense. But if God is El as well as Elohim, then God is both a singular and a plurality – a tougher nut to crack, especially if we are handed the responsibility for bringing about that unity. And Elohim is the first name of God even before God is addressed as YHWH for the God who creates heaven and earth is many and not just a one (Genesis 1:1), but in His actions God is One for the verb depicting those actions are in the third person masculine singular (Genesis 1:26). But we have been told at least several hundred times that “You shall not have other false elohim before me.” (Deuteronomy 5:7) God is Elohim but not like other elohim for God is El. So the One true God is One because He is many but a many that, unlike other elohim, stands first and foremost before us. For God is El Elyon, God most High – first used in the dialogue between Abraham and Melchizedek, King of Salem (Jerusalem) and High Priest. (Genesis 14: 18-22)

But the puzzlement has just begun concerning the One God and Lord we are commanded to recognize. For God is also El Roi, God who sees when in Genesis 16: 13-14 Hagar      sees God and recognizes Him and lives to testify that she saw God. (I will come back to this section when I deal with the issue of lordship and bondage, master and servant, for this is the culmination of the narrative of how Sarai deals with Hagar, Sarai’s maidservant.) Hagar sees God but the God she sees is the God who sees!!! And the God who is seen, is also YHWH-shalom,  the “LORD is peace”,  the One who calmed Gideon’s disquiet and inner turmoil for Gideon saw God and feared he would die (Judges 6:22-24).

God is also God Almighty, El Shaddai. But what is it to be El Shaddai? We, who are commanded to recognize that God exists, that God exists as your Lord and Master to whom we have a responsibility to give unity, are told that God is the one who has commanded us to: “Live in my (God’s) presence, be perfect, and I shall grant a covenant between myself and you, and make you very numerous.” (Genesis 17:2-3) We become many if we try to perfect ourselves. Perfection does not involve our becoming one but our becoming many. But perfection is premised on recognizing God as my God, Elohai.

Further, God is also YHWH-rah, our shepherd and provider (Psalms 23:1) God is also YHWH-yireh. After being instructed to sacrifice Isaac, and Abraham pronounces “Here I am” ready to follow Your commands. Yireh is the name of the place where Abraham, saw the ram to substitute for Isaac after Abraham was instructed not to sacrifice Isaac. Abraham is told that “I will provide,” and He did.  So evidently when you declare you are present and ready to obey a most horrific demand, you are provided with a way not to obey that command. NICE!

God is also a healer, YHWH-rophekha (Exodus 15:26); a flag and banner to lead one into battle, YHWH-nissi (Exodus 17:15); the One who sanctifies us when we sanctify Shabbat, YHWH-mekaddishkem (Exodus 31:13); or Elohei Tseva’ot (2 Samuel 5:10), Lord of Hosts, One who has a whole army of angels to serve Him, YHWH-sabaoth (why then does God need us?) except that it is this Lord of Hosts, this King of Glory, who gives us strength (Psalms 22:10) and who is Himself Elohei Tzur, God of Rock or Strength (2 Samuel 22:47). God is also Elohei Mishpat, God of Justice (Isaiah 30:18). 

So when we turn to the third commandment listed in the Mishneh Torah, the commandment to love God, we have shifted from a commandment of recognition through the responsibility of providing unity to the One who is Many to a commandment to put our heart and soul into the tasks. It is insufficient to just go through the paces. If you are to act to recognize God as Lord and Master, if you are to take on the task of giving unity to the manifold that is God, you must love God.

How do you do that? “You shall follow my rules and keep my statutes and walk in them. I am the Lord your God. You shall therefore keep my statutes and my rules; if a person does them, he shall live by them: I am the Lord.” (Leviticus 18: 28-30)

 

Part II              Exodus 21: 1-11

So what are the laws governing the treatment of an indentured servant for one who has made a covenant to recognize God as One and as one’s Lord and Master and to whom we have a responsibility to unify, a responsibility which, in turn, requires us to love God with all our mind and all our soul? Though Mishpatim covers personal injury and tort law as well as laws covering financial transactions and property law, I will focus on the laws concerning indentured servants. 

 

NRS1 These are the ordinances that you shall set before them:

 2 When you buy a male Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years, but in the seventh he shall go out a free person, without debt.

 3 If he comes in single, he shall go out single; if he comes in married, then his wife shall go out with him.

 4 If his master gives him a wife and she bears him sons or daughters, the wife and her children shall be her master’s and he shall go out alone.

 5 But if the slave declares, “I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out a free person,”

 6 then his master shall bring him before God. He shall be brought to the door or the doorpost; and his master shall pierce his ear with an awl; and he shall serve him for life.

 7 When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she shall not go out as the male slaves do.

 8 If she does not please her master, who designated her for himself, then he shall let her be redeemed; he shall have no right to sell her to a foreign people, since he has dealt unfairly with her.

 9 If he designates her for his son, he shall deal with her as with a daughter.

 10 If he takes another wife to himself, he shall not diminish the food, clothing, or marital rights of the first wife.

 11 And if he does not do these three things for her, she shall go out without debt, without payment of money.

 

Compared to the problems presented by the first three commandments of the Mishneh Torah, these commandments seem easy. First, it is clear that we are not talking about master-slave relations but about a relationship between a man and someone who serves his family. If you have an indentured servant working for you to pay off debts, the maximum service required is six years. They are not your property. They are not slaves. You do not own them. While in your service you have different obligations if the servant happens to be single or married. If single, he cannot be given a maidservant. If married to a Israelite wife, the master is obligated to provide for the servant’s family members even if they do not serve him, an obligation which ends when the service ends. However, if a married Israelite man with an Israelite wife is given another non-Israelite wife as a second wife, and that non-Israelite woman has children by him, then at the end of the term of service, the master has the continuing responsibility to take care of the maidservant and her children.

 

But what if the indentured servant both loves his new non-Jewish wife and their children and respects his master and does no want to leave them even if his indentured term of service is over. The servant ends up getting his ear pierced and he becomes a lifelong servant.

 

The laws then turn to cover those daughters given by their fathers as indentured servants. That daughter cannot go with a man. On the other hand, if she is not treated well by the master, she can insist on her release from her indenture and the master is bound to release her but can be repaid by her father. His contract with her cannot be sold on the open market. If he allows his son to marry her, then she has equal status and entitlements as any other daughter-in-law, entitlements that do not diminish if the son marries someone else. If the father of the son then does not accept his responsibilities, then the girl goes free.

 

There are lots of nuances and subtleties and some variations in interpretation in the Talmud, but this is the gist of it. These are laws of freedom and redemption, responsibility and recognition, tradition and a rational process for unpacking the meaning of that tradition, authority and loyalty — key values of cultural conservatives. In Part III, which I will send out on Sunday morning (it is not finished), I will delve into the question of recognition and respect and both the difference between and the relationship of the recognition that we are commanded to give God and the recognition at work between a master and an indentured servant.

 

[category Judaism]

[tags  Lordship and Bondage, God as One and Many]

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