Twelve Angry Men

 Dear Rabbi:

Mishpatim seems to be a natural connection for me. I have given two Devar Torahs related to this parshah over the past ten years. (I cannot believe that I have stood in front of the JJC bema for more than ten years giving my thoughts as it relates to a particular Torah portion.) It details many laws, including laws related to slaves, personal injury, loans, usury, and property damage.  If I went on about all of what this Parshah contains in that altogether, the Parshah of Mishpatim contains 53 mitzvot (23 imperative commandments and 30 prohibitions) it could make for a long comment, but as I have been taught by one of my favorite teachers, Rabbi Marvin Richardson, a blessed memory, to limit what one wants to convey, so I will concentrate on only two.
 I would even like to quote what I said before, when I twice stated from the bema that what  struck me as one of the most important mitvot cited in today’s Parsha is derived from Exodus 23:2 which states: “You shall not follow the majority for evil, and you shall not respond concerning a lawsuit to follow many to pervert [justice].” My comment went as follows:
“Everyone probably knows that after reading the Exodus portion of the Bible, Cecil B. DeMille said that this would make one heck of a story and the “Ten Commandments” was the result. Who is to say that at one time Reginald Rose who is the author of the play “Twelve Angry Men” or Henry Fonda, the actor who played the juror that held out despite the pressures of the other eleven people in the deliberating room because he believed he was right, did not at some time read this passage of the Bible for inspiration.
The term “justice is blind” probably found its origins in this week’s portion. Equality is of paramount importance throughout. For example, look at the treatment of the poor. One should not favor a poor man in his cause out of sympathy. As stated by the late Chief Rabbi of England, Rabbi Dr. Joseph Hertz (whose interpretation of the Torah preceded what we have in the book holders in front of us in the sanctuary of the JJC), “(t)he Biblical view of justice is remarkable for its unbending insistence on the strictest impartiality.” In such things as an award of money, a judge should not give a wrongful verdict in favor of the poor man on the pleas that the rich man would not miss the sum involved. “Sympathy and compassion are great virtues, but even these feelings must be silenced in the presence of justice.”
 Even enemies are to be afforded justice in their times of need. Acts of envy or ill will towards an enemy is forbidden. As elaborated by Dr. Hertz, "this concept of Jewish law has been totally abandoned by other religions and their concepts of “hating thine enemy” if one does adhere to the beliefs of the other’s religion. This intolerance is totally foreign to Jewish law or thinking and has been a constant basis of “anti-Semitism” throughout the ages."
  Finally, I would like to bring your attention to another theme that is prevalent throughout today’s reading. The concept of being absolutely sure that one is guilty before one is punished. As is stated in the commentaries, Jewish law is clear that it is better to acquit a guilty person than falsely convict someone who is innocent. If one truly buys into our beliefs, G-d will take care of the wicked in his own way.
As I stated in the beginning of my thoughts for today’s sermon, Jews have always been thought of as a remarkable people with extraordinary accomplishments, but none have been greater than the concept of a fair and just society bound by the rule of law.
It is my fondest hope that the wisdom, justice and equality contained in the Torah is really considered by our elected officials and that Yiddish sachel is used by those that govern.”
What I stated twice before, still resonates within me. How many of us would have the absolute principle to hold out for what he or she believes is justice just as Henry Fonda’s character did in “Twelve Angry Men” when he firmly believed that the person accused murder did not do what he was accused of. To those who do not know the plot of the movie it goes like this: Following the closing arguments in a murder trial, the 12 members of the jury must deliberate, with a guilty verdict meaning death for the accused, an inner-city teen. As the dozen men try to reach a unanimous decision while sequestered in a room, one juror (Henry Fonda) casts considerable doubt on elements of the case. Personal issues soon rise to the surface, and conflict threatens to derail the delicate process that will decide one boy's fate. It may sound easy, but would you stand your ground when all around you want to go the other way?
The second “law” that struck me was found in the Second Parshah at Exodus 21:22-23 which states the following:  
“And should men quarrel and hit a pregnant woman, and she miscarries but there is no fatality, he shall surely be punished, when the woman's husband makes demands of him, and he shall give [restitution] according to the judges' [orders].
But if there is a fatality, you shall give a life for a life,”
One of today’s burning debates that causes much passion on either side is the question of when does life begin. To me the above quote seems to state that there is a distinction between something that is carried within a woman for nine months and when that person is “living”. There is a penalty if a pregnant woman is struck and there is a miscarriage, but as I read it, it is only if the woman dies that there is the penalty of a “life for a life”. If what is inside the woman were a “life” then why would there not be the same penalty as a result of the miscarriage? I am eager to read your response.
 I will also give you an opening if you chose to want to debate other portions of the upcoming parshah. You have asked me about the issue of slavery and what better way to present your thoughts than through Mishpatim. 


Dear Mordecai,

53 Mitzvot! This must be the parsha with the second greatest number of mitzvot. Mass psychology is a fascinating subject. Maintaining one's independence in the midst of a large group of people takes integrity. That was in short supply on January 6 as a mob stormed the capitol. 

Not favoring the poor over the rich is one of my favorite teachings of the Torah, as it undermines the logic of socialism, one of the pet infatuations of many secular Jews. A rich person is not bad because he is rich. (He may be bad because he's not generous.)  
I certainly see envy as a key factor in antisemitism. 

As for not "hating thine enemy" are you saying that this has been abandoned by other religions? Christianity certainly looks askance at hating thine enemy and even demands that one love thine enemy,  a step further than Judaism takes. In my view, Judaism is correct in not instructing us to love our enemies. 

Believing that the wicked will get their punishment is, as you rightly state, a cornerstone of our faith. Believing that is extremely hard. That acquitting a guilty person is better than convicting an innocent person is an extraordinary teaching. One can carry this forward into the realm of human relations. Better to give someone benefit of the doubt in all situations. We would have much more peace if people lived that way.  

I agree that the concept of a fair and just society is our greatest accomplishment. I can see how, as a lawyer, this parsha would speak to you forcefully. 

I'm really pleased that you brought forward Exodus 21:22-23 because I see it as the basis of the pro-choice position as you rightly argue. 

Regarding slavery, many would be disappointed to see that slavery is permitted by the Torah, but the Torah's purpose is to work with human nature rather than eradicate it. 

I will need to share some of my original thoughts with you about the parsha tomorrow or the next day. 


Dear Rabbi,

It does not take much for most rational human beings to agree that what is contained in Mishpatim is absolutely remarkable as it relates to fairness and justice. The problem is that most people have not read its contents or if they have, they do not adhere to its principles. 

For example, take your comment to what I said as it relates to "hating thine neighbor" and other religions. Just to clarify, I quoted something I read from the commentaries of Rabbi Joseph Hertz who was the chief rabbi of England during the first half of the Twenty Century and a noted biblical scholar. He lived in an era of overt anti-Semitism as spouted from Christian leaders and maybe the term was more "politically correct" in his time, but I think it is still valid today. Sure, official Christian doctrine has gone away from the underlying thought that the "Jews killed Christ" but if anything anti-Semitism is as prevalent as it has ever been. Maybe those that have stated that the Jewish faith should be tolerated should "practice what they preach".

You reference the insane insurrection attempt on January 6 led by a "zealous G-d fearing" mob. Their basic premise was that the "election was stolen" and they had the "right" to take the government back, but in the middle of going after legislators and the then vice president of the United States, what do we see. Some of their ranks were proudly wearing "Camp Auschwitz" sweat shirts as they stormed the Capital Building. It seems to me that besides their misguided attempt to reclaim a government they thought was wrongly taken from them, they might as well "eliminate" another problem that has bothered them forever, Jews. I would be willing to bet the overwhelming majority of those that participated were of the Christian faith. 


Dear Mordecai,

It’s interesting that you say “most rational human beings” would agree that what is contained in Mishpatim is remarkable. What you don’t mention is that Mishpatim devotes lots of space to ritual observances that have no rational basis, as they are chukim. Scholars see the Book of the Covenant – as they refer to Mishpatim – as unique because it incorporates both ethical and ritual ordinances. Why is ritual contained in the same code as the ethical?

You mention the antisemitism of Christians, but isn’t the antisemitism of Muslims of greater concern to us today. Have you ever faced explicit antisemitism from Christians of the Christian variety? Christians appear to be better friends to us that post-Christian secularists.

I was watching the footage again of January 6, and I am not surprised that such an insane group of people would include Holocaust deniers of several varieties. I honestly don’t know why Capitol police did not shoot more people.

As for whether they are Christians or not, they probably were born Christian, but often the white supremacists replace their Christianity with the quasi-theological white supremacism. I wouldn’t paint them as representative of American Christianity.



Dear Rabbi,

I grew up in the Bronx and anti-Semitism was something I encountered wherever I went. I have often said that I would not trade one day in the Bronx for whatever "benefits" my children had by growing up in Jericho. I developed a "street smartness" that has carried me through the rest of my life. 

My comments as it relates to the "rational human beings" deal only with civil and criminal law as it has evolved today. The fairness and justice of those mitzvot is what I am referring to. I do not give any notice to the ritual part.  

My response as to "Christianity" is taken from what you wrote to me. In the Muslim world, if you do not believe in their ways you are an infidel and must be dealt with severely. You were the one that took odds with the "hating thine enemy" reference that I took from Rabbi Hertz. As to the mob that invaded the Capital, look at the video and see how many of them are wearing crosses. Listen to the comments of the crowd and hear how many of them were yelling out the name of Jesus. The irony of their reference to Jesus is that if they ran across Jesus today, they would probably stone him as being some sort of long haired hippie freak that espoused a "love thy neighbor" "turn the other cheek" rhetoric that they could not tolerate.