Double Standard: Mishpatim 2020

by Adam J. Rosenbaum

Pre-Game Chatter: Is it reasonable to judge previous societies by modern standards? How can we learn lessons from previous societies without compromising the ideals we have come to accept today?

As God continues a list of rules that had started with the 10 Commandments, the patriarchal nature of ancient Israel is evident from the beginning:

The Pitch: “When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she shall not be freed as male slaves are. If she proves to be displeasing to her master, who designated her for himself, he must let her be redeemed; he shall not have the right to sell her to outsiders, since he broke faith with her. And if he designated her son, he shall deal with her as is the practice with free maidens. If he marries another, he must not withhold from this one her food, her clothing, or her conjugal rights. If he fails her in these three ways, she shall go free, without payment.” – Exodus 21:7-11

Swing #1: “In general, few restraints were placed upon man’s sexual urges. He could not violate the right of another man: the father, the betrothed, or the husband of a woman; but no limit was placed upon the number of women he might keep in his household as wives or concubines or slaves.” – William Graham Cole, Sex & Love in the Bible

Swing #2: “Our Mothers add: So at worst, a daughter sold into indentured service could ultimately regain her freedom and go out into the world penniless – no worse off than before; at best, she could gain a home, a husband, and children. Many poor parents, even now, can offer far less.” – Ellen Frankel, Ph.D., The Five Books of Miriam

Swing #3: “This case may refer specifically to girls handed over as wives (not concubines), with the possibility of servitude for unmarried daughters precluded. The rulings have an interest in the welfare of such a female as the secondary wife for a man or his son.” – Carol Meyers, Exodus

Late-Inning Questions: Do our commentators do a good job of understanding these rules of the Torah as typical of, or even superior to, the times in which they were written? Must we apologize for ancient texts we don’t agree with? Or simply put them in the context of their times?

On-Deck at Emanu-El: I know the Emanu-El rabbinic search committee appreciated the excellent turnout for the first of its candidates. I hope that congregants continue to stay engaged this weekend while its second candidate visits.

The Big Inning at the End: Speaking of putting things in the context of ancient times, it’s comforting to know that, even as the Houston Astros sign-stealing scandal is casting a dark shadow on the modern game, people have been predicting the imminent demise of professional baseball ever since the 1880s. And when you consider that the first professional team didn’t start playing until 1869, we know that the game has survived much in its history, and will continue to do so.

Shabbat Shalom!