Adrian A. Durlester

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Random Musings Before Shabbat-Mishpatim 5764

Situational Ethics

There are some in the religious community for whom the very words "situational ethics" are anathema. Many people of faith are looking for definitive answers to questions of behavior, morality, and ethics. And many proponents of particular faiths have proclaimed over the years that their faith does indeed provide an unshatterable bedrock from which such definitive answers can be derived.

Even I am not immune from this idea. Years ago, when applying for admission to Vanderbilt Divinity School, I wrote in my application essay of my disappointment with a society that has a moral compass that seems to conveniently point to whatever magnetic north is in fashion at the time. I sought, through the study of theology in general, and more importantly, of my own Jewish religion in particular, that I could find a true north, that elusive bedrock, that immutable source on which at least a rudimentary set of ethics and values could be built.

I suppose that, to some degree, that search has been partially successful. There do seem to be a few boundaries that I can accept as being derived from some basic understandings of Gd's Torah. Some of these are universal in character, and could, indeed, probably be derived from nature and exist in a world without Gd and religion. Others are more particular to Judaism and Torah (and I am surely thankful for that. There have been times in my search for meaning that I began to despair of finding value in a particularistic religious faith.) There are ideas in the Torah which may not be "common sense" in a broad understanding of the word, but, within the context of a Jewish understanding of the universe, are common sense.

Then again, the search has also been rather unsuccessful. The deeper one goes and the more one studies Torah and Judaism, the more apparent it becomes that "lo bashamayim hi" (the Torah is not in heaven) is a double-edged sword. For some it means that the p'shat, the plain meaning is apparent, and is we need. That edge of the sword can be sharp and cut you when you least expect it. For others, "lo bashamayim hi" means our complete freedom to continually try to understand and (re)interpret the text in ways that make sense in a current context. That edge, too, is quite sharp and can leave one cut just as easily as the other edge.

The more I study Torah, the I grow both more enlightened and more baffled. Boundaries I once thought hard turn out to be amorphous. And boundaries I once thought permeable and osmotic now seem impenetrable. Where, in all this, is the bedrock?

Well, here's a radical thought. Maybe the "bedrock" is the clear understanding that our anchors can be hauled up and later dropped in another location to again hold us fast for a time. Certainly, throughout our history we have done this? What is rabbinical Judaism if not an attempt to deal with the sea change imposed by the destruction of the Holy Temple? And modern liberal Judaisms are similar in their attempts to see if maybe we need to shift our anchorage.

All this, of course, leads to that slippery slope of "situational ethics." But is it all that slippery a slope? This weeks parasha gives us an opportunity to consider alternatives.

Just look at the incongruity. Here we are, multitudes freed oppressive slavery to Pharaoh. And yet, what do we find in parashat Mishpatim, with our first inkling of some form of codified principles for individual and communal behavior, standards, ethics and morality? A series of commandments designed to insure fair treatment of slaves.

Our modern sensibilities are confused, even offended by this. "How," we ask, "can the Israelites continue a practice like slavery when they have just be freed from it?"

The apologist's first defense of this uses the explanation that we must not think of slavery in those ancient times in the same way as we do the slavery of the past few centuries. "It's more like voluntary indentiture," they say. And there are plenty of other explanations and workarounds designed to soothe our sense.

Balderdash, I say. Let's call it like it is. The Jewish people have a great history of being practical. Both the Torah and the rabbinic writings are replete with examples of this. (For an really obvious rabbinic example, one need look no further than Hillel's "prosbul" designed to circumvent the laws of the sabbatical year for the sake of commerce.

So here's how we redeem this particular bit of supposedly irredeemable text. What's going on in the Torah here in Mishpatim is--------drumroll--------------------situational ethics!!!

The lessons to be derived from these teachings in these times is likely different than it was in ancient times. Forms of slavery were a societal norm. Our ancestors accepted that, yet felt compelled to work to insure fair treatment and justice for all segments of their society, slaves included. (There's some discussion as to whether or not these commandments pertained to non-Jewish slaves, but that's a discussion for another time.)

In ancient times, the people needed these reminders to treat even their slaves with dignity and as human beings. Based on the anchorage our ancestors had chosen, slavery was not and ethical dilemma. What was important was recognizing that slaves, too, were part of Gd's creation and merited fair treatment.

We've shifted anchorages. For most people in the world today, slavery, even of the indentured servitude kind, is no longer considered a morally and ethically accepted practice. (Is this is because slavery in our time and recent times in, invariably, implemented cruelly, unfairly, and unjustly? Would our society accept voluntary indentured servitude? Voluntary slavery? Imposed slavery that wasn't cruel or oppressive?)

Yet the commandments in Mishpatim are no less applicable for us today. The application is simply different. It's situational. Aside from those who, sadly are slaves, even in this day and age (and such conditions do exist throughout the world, even here in the U.S.) there are those whose lot in life could see them suffering the same injustices and cruelties as slaves. The homeless, the poor, the minority. The Torah's commandments on how we should treat our slaves are easily transferable.

It isn't necessarily easy to make the shift. We have little need to drive an awl through the ear of a slave who chooses voluntarily to remain with his master so that he may stay with his family. Yet we can gain some understanding about the importance of allowing someone to remain with his family despite circumstances.

I can't promise, right off the top of my head, to try and make similar connections for all the commandments regarding the treatment of and justice as applied to slaves that we find in this parasha. Yet I am sure that it can be done with study.

Is it really correct to refer to what our ancestors did in the Torah as situational ethics, when, for them, slavery may not have been against moral imperative? For me, it is. I think that if one digs deeply into Torah, one can find the necessary support to argue that slavery is morally and ethically wrong. This being the case, I suggest that our ancestors were indeed applying situational ethics.

For me, the whole joy of Torah is our ability to turn it and turn it, and continue to find news ways of understanding her. And that, for me, is a kind of situational ethics. It need not be anathema to those of faith that even moral imperatives commanded by Gd ought to be adjusted as needed to adapt the changing circumstances. Gd did not put us in a steady-state universe. And Gd has shown a bit of a learning curve as well. Which leads me to my final thought for this musing: A Gd that cannot and does not change "its" mind is no Gd. There. I said it. Some of you are probably ready to lump me in with heretics like Spinoza, but I daresay that this understanding of mine is at its core, Jewish. Care to argue?

Shabbat Shalom,

 ©2004 by Adrian A. Durlester

Some Previous Musings on the same parasha

Mishpatim 5763-My Object All Sublime
Mishpatim 5762-Enron Beware!
Mishpatim 5761-Change from the Inside
Mishpatim 5760-Chukim U'mishpatim
Mishpatim 5759-Eid Khamas-Witness to Violence

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