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Dear Friends,

The Torah portion this week, Mishpatim, is also known as Seder Ha-Brit—the Book of the Covenant. It contains the first body of laws in the Torah, and includes a mix of moral imperatives, social standards, civil and criminal injunctions, and rules for proper worship. Strikingly, all of these laws, whether focused on worship or addressing how neighbors should interact with one another, are seen as a reflection of our treatment of and regard for God. Judaism made no distinction between the “civic identity” and one’s degree of religiosity. All behavior was viewed as a form of indirect worship.

When the rabbis of old looked at the placement of this Torah portion in the larger context of the Torah, they wondered why this listing of rules came immediately following a portion that went into great detail with regard to the rituals and “proper treatment” of the tabernacle, the portable temple our ancestors carried with them during their desert wandering.

The answer, according to some rabbis, can be derived from a Talmudic teaching that states, “Great is human dignity, for it overrides a prohibition in the Torah.”

Judaism may be rich in ritual but it has long taught that we must, as one scholar put it, “prioritize people over rules and to elevate human dignity over systemic consistency.”

He continues,

“How easy it is to allow ideology to obliterate human worth, to permit devotion to an ideal to render invisible the individual in front of us.”

In other words, the rites and rituals of Judaism are important, but they do not supersede the value and dignity of human beings.

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson notes,

“It is too easy to let ideology blind us to the humanity and the need of the individual in front of us. On the Right and the Left, our systemic commitments can erase the humanity of a person, the simple reality of pain and sorrow, need that calls out for an equally human response. Rather than indulging that erasure, Judaism confronts it. Even a commitment to Torah cannot remove the priority of human dignity.”

We are living in an age in which rigid, radical ideologies seem to have taken center stage in countless arenas. This week’s portion comes to remind us that too many in our world today are placing their ideological commitments ahead of the well-being of people. When that happens not only do people—often the most vulnerable in society—suffer, but the ideological system prompting such harshness reveals itself as callous and regressive. By contrast, Torah reminds us that the religious systems of Judaism are there to serve humanity and that, at its best, religious ideology should be a tool to advance justice, righteousness, and love.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Daniel Cohen