Select Page

Judaism: The Complete Religion

When the term religion comes up in conversation, our mind jumps to notions of God and theology, or perhaps to religious practices and ceremonies designed to connect us with God, or to a list of do’s and don’ts to be followed by the faithful. For most of us, the domain of civil law rarely, if ever comes to the fore. Those laws, while important for a smooth running society, don’t engender the feeling and inspiration we are looking for in religion. The realm of civil law is relegated to the mundane world of practical living not with the lofty spiritual plane of existence sought out by religious practitioners.

Here again, Judaism demonstrates its uniqueness. Judaism, perhaps, is miscategorized as a religion. In the fulfillment of Judaism, civil law is every whit as integral to its proper practice as are its religious laws. This week’s Torah reading, פרשת משפטים, introduces us to a complex and sophisticated civil law system. Someone sensitive to the Hebrew text will notice something odd about the first word in the opening verse. The very first word in the Hebrew text is “ואלא” meaning “and these.” The scholar Rashi notes that the letter “ו” of the first word is the conjunction “and.” It serves to join the end of the previous פרשה to this one. This linguistic hint, then, establishes that this week’s reading is in some way a direct continuation from the end of last week’s reading.

Rashi offers two ideas. The last topic of פרשת יתרו (Torah section “Yitro”) was the design of the altar, a truly religious object.  The conjunction “ו” meaning “and” in the first word of פרשת משפטים (Torah section Mishpatim, Civil Law)  informs us that these civil laws were also given on Har Sinai, the seminal event mentioned last week, together with the religious commands. Second, the use of the conjunction “and” to begin this week’s reading teaches us that these two discrete dimensions of Judaism are integrally related. Rashi points out that the proximity of the last verses from פרשת יתרו coming right before those of משפטים teaches us a specific law. The High Court of Israel, the Sanhedrin, was housed in a chamber located in the Holy Temple. The legal branch of Judaism, represented by the Sanhedrin, was “joined at the hip,” so to speak with the sacrificial and religious processes carried out by the priests in the Holy Temple.

Rashi’s comments are insightful. As noted above, religion is generally thought to confine itself to the study of theology and rituals performed in the service and worship of God. It is often assumed that religion has no role to play in establishing and regulating behaviors between people, especially those of a commercial nature. While it may be that other religions of the world outline broad platitudes for ethical and moral behavior, an intricate set of laws encompassing labor issues and worker’s rights, for example, or spelling out the responsibility for causing various types of personal injury and/or property damage, or how Judaism deals with robbery and break-ins or borrowing and lending possessions and money comprise many of the 613 mitzvot in the Jewish religion.

In contrast to the common notion of religion in which the service to God is separated from the daily interactions between people, Judaism teaches that our relationship to God is first and foremost measured by how we interacted with others on a daily, practical and commercial basis. Our Sages reiterate this idea in the Talmud, Baba Kamma, 30a. There they state, “ One who wishes to be righteous must be scrupulous  and conscientious in matters of civil law.”  Judaism is not relegated to the synagogue, home or to the so called religious activities like keeping kosher, prayer or fasting. Judaism is a religion that encompasses every human endeavor and activity no matter how ordinary or mundane. It is a guide to all facets of our lives.

Through that single letter “ו” at the very beginning of פרשת משפטים, God in His infinite wisdom constructed and aligned the words of the Torah to serve as a continual reminder for these ideas. Both the ritual law and civil law come from Sinai. Both domains have the same source, God of the universe. Only by being as meticulous in the realm of civil law as in the realm of religious law can that personal relationship with God, the goal of every religion, be attained.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Robert Kaplan