February 13, 2015

Mishpatim: Racism and Idolatry

This week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim ([Laws], Exodus 21:1-24:18), warns us severely and often about evils of racism. The bible knew no such word, of course, and, ironically, this portion also contains material that appears to accept “bondage” as a normal part of [ancient] life. But messages about racial justice and related concepts are nonetheless there, and quite strong, if we look carefully.

“God’s wrath” and “idolatry”

The biblical expression “divine wrath” is reserved for cases of idolatry on the part of the whole Nation, according to Maimonides and later scholars. And this understanding calls us to avoid afflicting “widows and orphans”:

In our case [Exodus 22:23: “My wrath will burn (וְחָרָה אַפִּי)”], the same expression is deliberately used in order to equate the affliction of the orphan and the widow to idolatry, teaching us that there is no crime greater than this.
New Studies in Shemot/Exodus, Nehama Leibowitz, p.395

Many teachers understand “widows and orphans” as a biblical expression meaning “the most vulnerable among us,” which surely includes victims of hundreds of years of racism in the U.S. From a somewhat more literal perspective, black communities today include too many widows and orphans, as well as grieving mothers and traumatized communities.

Moreover, idolatry and racism are directly connected:

Few of us seem to realize how insidious, how radical, how universal an evil racism is. Few of us realize that racism is man’s gravest threat to man, the maximum of hatred for a minimum of reason, the maximum of cruelty for a minimum of thinking.

Perhaps this Conference should have been called “Religion or Race.” You cannot worship God and at the same time look at man as if he were a horse.

“Race prejudice, a universal human ailment, is the most recalcitrant aspect of the evil in man” (Reinhold Niebuhr), a treacherous denial of the existence of God.

What is an idol? Any god who is mine but not yours, any god concerned with me but not with you, is an idol.
Abraham Joshua Heschel, Conference on “RELIGION AND RACE” (14 JANUARY 1963)

Both Heschel and Leibowitz stress, based on ancient tradition, that being silent in the face of oppression is as serious as committing the crime ourselves. (No time to explore this further right now — Shabbat is almost upon us — but will return to this theme.)

Strangers

This portion is also one in which we are warned about not oppressing a stranger, reminded again and again that we were once strangers in Egypt.

In addition, we are warned against “false reports” and “running with the multitude,” both of which seem obviously connected to racism. (Again, time has run out for now. More later.)

Some verses from Mishpatim

And a stranger shalt thou not wrong, neither shalt thou oppress him; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt. (22:20)
Ye shall not afflict any widow, or fatherless child. (22:21)
If thou afflict them in any wise–for if they cry at all unto Me, I will surely hear their cry– (22:22)
My wrath shall wax hot, and I will kill you with the sword; and your wives shall be widows, and your children fatherless. (22:23)

Thou shalt not utter [others: “accept”] a false report; put not thy hand with the wicked to be an unrighteous witness. (23:1)
Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil; neither shalt thou bear witness in a cause to turn aside after a multitude to pervert justice (23:2)

And a stranger shalt thou not oppress; for ye know the heart of a stranger, seeing ye were strangers in the land of Egypt. (23:9)
— JPS 1917 translation (Public Domain, Mechon Mamre)

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Ethics, racism, Shemot

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