Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Torah Comments for a Wet Wednesday

Today, supposedly, the storms we have been expecting will finally hit, and I should plan a long day, following yoga class, of reading, writing, and reflection on the writing workshop I may or may not be teaching at the synagogue.
Last night I went to Torah class, which was full of the usual suspects. We discussed an interesting portion, Mishpatim, in which God presents yet more rules and regulations to the people of Israel prior to their moving forward on their long journey out of slavery.
Intriguingly enough, these extra laws, aside and apart and on top of those in the decalogue, include many that make it clear that slavery was a regular part of life for these people who had been slaves so recently themselves. For a people whose central tenet, enshrined in the heart of the culture and the faith, was the necessity of being a free people, they accepted slavery very blithely, as did God.
The rules here outline specific legal formulae for punishing various kinds of infractions or running everyday life. There were apparently many Israelite debt slaves. If they were men, they had to be freed in the 7th year after their enslavement. If they were women though, sold by their parents, they would not be freed unless the master was displeased by them. Then they must be given back to their parents or freed, even though to free them meant they would utterly lack protection and might starve or be open to attack.
This rule, seemingly so harsh to us, actually apparently was an effort at kindness, but it certainly makes it clear what the status (or lack thereof) of women in that culture was.
And should that woman be a foreign captive, she was never entitled to be freed, unless she were by chance married to an Israelite former slave, who chose to buy her freedom and that of his children with her, should the master be amenable to this arrangement.
There were many other odd formulae, which seemed arbitrary to us, but would probably have made sense in the culture of the time. Among these was the odd precept that if a master beat his slave and killed him outright, the master would be executed for murder. But if the slave was just badly injured and didn't die till later, the master would not be punished. However, if the slave lost an eye or a tooth the frey, he would go free. Strange!
The lex talionis shone front and center in this portion. It was clear that this was never meant literally. No one who cut off a hand would have his own hand cut off, for example. It was all about proportionality in punishment, a principle we hew to today.

No comments: