As I read Parshat Mishpatim and its impressive list of rules, I was struck by the number of oft-quoted laws that is contained in it. "An eye for an eye," "do not eat a lamb in its mother's milk," "honor your parents," "freeing slaves," "respecting strangers," "respect God," "do not curse your leaders," "be kind to animals," "protect the innocent," the list of harvest festivals - many of the most interesting, complex values of our faith are found here. This parsha provides an opportunity to explore just about any controversial topic in Judaism, from the relative validity of the oral and written law to abortion.
The portion opens with the verse, "And these are the ordinances that you shall place before them." The Torah chooses to use the Hebrew word mishpatim as opposed to mitzvot (commandments) or dibrot (sayings). According to commentary of the Etz Hayim Chumash published by the Jewish Publication Society, the word mishpatim referred to "specific judicial rulings" and has since come to denote laws of general standards of conduct.
So what are these "general standards of conduct" that appear in this portion? Many of these laws seem to boil down to the question, "how much is one life worth?" Judaism attempts to place a value on all life, whether human, animal or embryo. At first glance, human life appears to be placed in a separate category, with the "eye for an eye" category. However, our sages teach us that even this should be converted to a monetary figure.
What value, then, should we place on life? What does that value say about who we are as people and as a people? I have difficulty with the notion that a life can be reduced to a monetary sum. We would all like to think that the beneficiaries of a multimillion-dollar tobacco settlement would trade that money for the life of the person they have lost.
On the other hand, if instead we exact retribution, whether a jail sentence or a "tooth for a tooth," then we are still placing a value on life, using a different currency. Not even capital punishment offers a solution, for as the great sage, Gandalf the wizard, said, "Deserve death? … Many who are living deserve death. And many who are dead deserve life. Can you give that to them? Then be not so quick to deliver the other."
This does not mean that we should allow crimes to go unpunished, however. Pacifism in the face of any provocation is as wrong as any other possibility. We must place a high value on every human life but cannot raise that bar so high that no punishment is possible. Looking back at the opening verse of the portion we notice that the verse does not say "these are the ordinances which you shall command them." Rather, it says "these are the ordinances which you shall set before them." The Sforno, a 16th century Torah scholar, suggested that this language comes to tell remind us we are not dealing with black and white, positive and negative commandments here, but "rather we are being instructed how to deal justly with certain situations as they arise."
Ultimately, the answer is that none of these measures are good enough. Each incident, each act must be evaluated and measured against a just code of values in order to find an appropriate punishment or compensation. It is precisely this balance that our texts force us to search for by placing both a monetary value on life as well as a commandment for physical retribution. While the U.S. criminal justice system reduces everything to a quantifiable number, whether it is years in prison or a fine, Judaism reminds us of the sanctity of life and the impossibility of placing a value upon it.
Prepared by By Ari Dubin, executive director, Vanderbilt University Hillel
Additional commentaries and text studies on Parshat Mishpatim at MyJewishLearning.com.