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The Moral Challenge

Mishpatim (Exodus 21-24 )

by Rabbi Shaul Rosenblatt

A quick look at the Torah’s incredible and ancient moral sophistication.

I'm going to mention a few of the Torah's civil laws from this week's portion, and I want to issue a challenge: Can you name any other society that had such an incredibly sophisticated moral code 3,000 years ago, or 1,000, or even 100 years ago. I will even venture to challenge that no one can find a code today that matches up. This is not saying that Jews are better than anyone else. Rarely have we fully lived up to these values. I'm just saying that the value system clearly seems to be above and beyond anything that human beings could have or would have come up with themselves. Here are my few examples:

  • There is no debtor's prison in Judaism. There is no point in putting debtors in prison, much as we might feel we would like to. Both the UK and USA only saw fit to abolish this in the 19th century.
  • In general, the punishment for theft is paying back the amount stolen. There is no harsher punishment if more money is involved. Stealing more money is no worse than stealing less. Values are absolute, not money dependant. Theft is theft, be it Bernie Madoff or a pickpocket. Only in a society that places money on too high a pedestal, will Madoff be viewed as worse.
  • It is forbidden to push someone into selling you something that they don't want to sell, even if you offer way above the market value. By putting them in a corner, you impinge upon their right of ownership. A buyer must, in Jewish law, take "no" for an answer.
  • A lender is not allowed to press the borrower to repay a loan. If the borrower does not have the money, Jewish law states that the lender must go out of his way to avoid him, so as not to embarrass him.
  • If you take a deposit for a loan from a poor man, you must return it to him when he needs it. If it is a pillow for example, you must return it to him every night.
  • Full-time household servants cannot be quartered in lesser accommodation than their masters. They must live in the same size rooms, have the same softness of beds, the same amount of pillows and eat the same food. Simply put, one must treat one's servants as one's equals.
  • If there is a dispute between a worker and an employer, the worker always has the upper hand. Labor laws were pretty much forced upon Western society in the 19th and 20th centuries by the power of trade unions. In Jewish law, the worker was been protected from his wealthy employer for over 3,000 years.

Like I say, these are just a few examples of the incredible moral sophistication in the Torah. As I learn Torah's codes of values, I am rarely unimpressed. Anyone want to take me up on my challenge?!

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