Thursday, 08 Feb 2024

Written by Jennifer Verson

We will do and we will hear: Making a Jewish Road by Walking

This week’s parashah – Mishpatim – invites us on a journey as Progressive Jews to consider our relationship with the complexities of Jewish law in the Torah. To what extent is that relationship shaped by contemporary critical approaches? And how does it play out in our lived experience of Judaism?

The section between Exodus 20:22 to 23:33 is known in biblical scholarship as the Covenant Code. It contains a mind-boggling breadth and range of commandments which include foundational legal principles (“an eye for an eye,” 21:25); instructions for responsible neighbourliness (“If you take your neighbour’s garment in pledge, you must return it before the sun sets,” 22:25); and rules to promote civic harmony (“When you encounter your enemy’s ox or ass wandering, you must take it back,” 23:04).

This combination of different domains of law into one code which includes ethical and moral rules, sacred laws, and the profane everyday laws has been the subject of some of the biggest questions in contemporary biblical scholarship. What is the origin of these biblical laws – and indeed, of the text as a whole?

The Documentary Hypothesis, originally formulated in the 19th Century by Wellhausen, posited four independent sources –  J (Yahwist, the earliest source), E (Elohist, drawn from the northern traditions), D (Deuteronomist, born out of the reign of Josiah the 16th King of Judah (640-609 BCE) who centralised Jewish worship in Jerusalem) and P (Priestly, representing ritual codes, laws and practices). Approaching Mishpatim from this source-critical perspective, we find that the verses identified as the Covenant Code are considered an E (Elohist) by scholars that follow Wellhausen.

Embracing complexity is intrinsic to Jewish law and practice, and this exploration of Mishpatim is no exception. Scholars of the Wellhausen school were convinced that the mixture of the sacred and profane laws in the Covenant Code was an indication that the code developed from the sacred law to profane law. Later scholars, meanwhile, considered that the mixture of laws represented casuistic (if…then) laws which drew from pre-Israelite ancient Near Eastern sources and the apodictic laws which were considered ‘genuine’ Israelite laws.

While the complexity of biblical criticism can be overwhelming, and a source-critical approach can be difficult to reconcile with the iconography of Moses and the two stone tablets, this consideration of Mishpatim is meaningful for living Judaism because it enables us to create a dynamic relationship with Torah.

This week’s parashah is a case in point. David Pearson Wright, an American theologian and a professor of Bible and the Ancient Near East at Brandeis University, argues that the Covenant Code is largely a creative rewriting of Mesopotamian sources – to be viewed as an academic abstraction rather than a digest of laws practiced by Israelites and Judaeans over the course of centuries. But its selective character and the manner in which it reshapes the political and theological landscape of the Laws of Hammurabi, in fact, make it an importantly ideological document as a response – our response – to Assyrian political and cultural domination. Perhaps we might understand the Judaean scribes as a part of a colonised people who were emulating or mimicking the laws that were part of the cultural hegemony of their time.

Contemplating these Ancient Near Eastern influences enriches our understanding of the story of our text – but what does reading the Covenant Code in this light reinforce about our relationship to our Jewish practice? The answer, I would suggest, comes towards the end of Mishpatim as the people receive the law from Moses – the Jewish people understands Judaism by doing Judaism.

While the first three chapters of Misphpatim focus on law and law codes, the conclusion of Mishpatim is about sharing the law, hearing the law, and the methodical process that Moses goes through to bring the law to the people. Moses does not just receive the Torah – Exodus 24 verses 1-18 are all about the actions that are necessary to bring the Torah to the people – Moses puts God’s commandments in writing (perhaps now symbolising to us the multifarious mosaic of scribes who have given us the Divine patchwork of our text), but words go with actions – an altar with a pillar for each of the twelve tribes, the blood-red choreography of a sacrifice, and then the reading aloud of the covenant to the people, who climactically reply: “Kol asher-dibber adonai na’aseh venishma.” (All that Adonai has spoken we will do and we will hear!)

And it is only then that we arrive at the essence of how we manage the complexity of Jewish law. Na’aseh ve-nishma: we will do and we will hear. This phrase was originally interpreted as a sign of the obedience of the Jewish people, who agreed to accept the law before actually knowing what it entailed. But the reading that I am offering to you today follows in the footsteps of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and the idea that we gain spiritual and theological insight through action.

According to Heschel’s daughter Susanna Heschel

“When he came home from Selma in 1965, my father wrote, ‘For many of us the march from Selma to Montgomery was about protest and prayer. Legs are not lips and walking is not kneeling. And yet our legs uttered songs. Even without words, our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying.’

This pair of verbs in Mishpatim – na’aseh venishma – reflects the ongoing connection between the body and the spirit. It is through action with our body that we strive to truly hear God, to truly understand. What does na’aseh ve-nishma mean for us today and right here? At this time of great upheaval and suffering we can understand our Judaism through the historic complexity of both doing and hearing, walking and listening. We pray with our feet and we consider how we can hear and listen. We must consider how we as Jews hear and the spaces necessary for gathering to hear.  Doing and hearing are interdependent and we must care for all of the places, all of the moments and all of the people that we gather with to hear. The wisdom of praying with our feet is traced throughout Jewish history and tradition – scholarship can bring the landscape and geology of the text more sharply, colourfully and beautifully into focus, but we hope that ultimately, this serves to ground us further on the path that we tread as Progressive Jews, trying to keep walking the story of Jewish law and practice towards a world of goodness and peace.

Jennifer Verson LBC rabbinic student

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.