Choosing a Life-Giving Narrative

A d’var Torah for Mishpatim (Ex.21:1-24:18) by Judith Plaskow. 

Four years ago — still during the Obama era — I had the opportunity to tour the offices of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) in Montgomery, Alabama. Walking through their photo gallery, I was brought up short by the image of a middle-aged white man in a T-shirt that read in bold letters “Put the White Back in White House.” The photo seemed to capture perfectly one of the competing narratives about the meaning of US history on display throughout our time in the South. The civil rights sites we visited told the story of a nation with a bloody and oppressive history seeking over time to live up to its highest ideal. The still-visible Confederate flags and monuments, and sites such as the First White House of the Confederacy just a few blocks from EJI, portrayed a country looking back nostalgically on a period of explicit and legal white supremacy.

These dueling interpretations of American history underlie the deep polarization, anger, and mutual incomprehension of our time. On one side lies a profound sense of injury at the “theft” of American jobs, culture, services, and institutions by people of color, immigrants, and women. “Make America Great Again” celebrates an era of white hegemony and male domination, when the White House was white and no woman could mount a serious challenge for the presidency. The opposing story begins from the conviction that the diversity of the country is its strength; that, with the exception of Native Americans, everyone in the United States at some point came from elsewhere; and that the nation has striven and must continue to strive to expand its understanding of who constitutes “we the people.”

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Interestingly, Mishpatim exhibits similar internal conflicts over the meaning, implications, and trajectory of Israelite history. One of the most powerful injunctions in the Torah appears twice in this parshah: “You shall not wrong nor oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 22:20); “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt” (23:9). This mandate, which is repeated 36 times in the Torah, challenges us to remember and use our history in the service of compassion. Given at a moment when the Israelites were not yet settled in their own land with the power to decide how to treat the strangers among them, this law calls on them to use the memory of being outsiders to identify with others in that same position. Rather than reproducing the patterns of domination and subordination that they themselves experienced, they should create a society in which all are welcome and safe.

But this is not the only voice in the portion. Ironically, it also contains the rules for the treatment of slaves, taking for granted the existence of debt-slavery as a social institution. While numerous commentators have pointed to the ways that the laws of Mishpatim seek to limit slavery or are less oppressive than the decrees of surrounding cultures, it is nonetheless striking that the memory of bondage in Egypt does not become the basis for eliminating slavery altogether. Moreover, the acceptance of slavery is thoroughly entangled with patriarchy in a way that prefigures contemporary fantasies of a male-dominated, white America. If a slave is provided with a wife by his master and nonetheless chooses to leave at the end of his term of service, the wife and her children become the master’s permanent possessions (21:4). The parshah also baldly lays out the rules governing a parent selling a daughter as a slave as if this is a normal and acceptable occurrence (21:7).

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The testimony of our founding documents, both American and Jewish, is mixed, murky, and complicated in ways that are often painful to confront. It is tempting to argue that it is the ideals expressed in our texts that are essential and enduring while the fact that they are unfulfilled is simply an artifact of history. It is easy to focus on those passages in the Torah that are inspiring and uplifting, or to depict US history as a continuing march toward equality and freedom, passing over in silence the aspects of both narratives that are troubling or oppressive.

But this approach is deeply problematic because the ambiguity of our canonical texts has formed us for good and for ill. The sexism, heterosexism, and ethnocentrism of the Torah are every bit as important in shaping the Jewish community as the parts we may prefer — just as the enshrinement of slavery in the Constitution casts its long shadow across the entirety of American history. It is pointless to debate which perspective in our founding documents is more central or “real”; both strands are foundational to both stories. It is not the texts themselves that tell us which set of values to choose. It is we who must again and again decide to lift up the voices allied with the stranger and the marginalized. It is we who must commit ourselves to creating a society and Jewish community in line with that vision — without denying the parts of own histories that point in the opposite direction.

Judith Plaskow is professor emerita of religious studies at Manhattan College and a Jewish feminist theologian. Her most recent book, co-authored with Carol P. Christ, is Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology.