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Torah Sparks

February 9, 2002 - 5762

Prepared by Rabbi David L. Blumenfeld, PhD
Department of Services to Affiliated Congregations

Annual Cycle: Exodus 21:1-24:18; Hertz, p. 305; Etz Hayim, p. 456
Triennial Cycle I: Exodus 21:1-22:3; Hertz, p. 305; Etz Hayim, p. 456
Maftir: Exodus 30:11-16; Hertz, p. 352; Etz Hayim, p. 523
Haftarah: II Kings 11:17-12:17; Hertz, p. 992; Etz Hayim, p. 1276

This Shabbat’s Torah Portion Summary

(21:1-11) The beginning of the Covenant Code. Laws regarding master and slave.

(21:12-17) Capital crimes.

(21:18-22:3) Laws of personal injury,property damage, theft, and negligence.

(22:4-14) Laws governing different kinds of property custodians: unpaid, paid, and borrowers.

(22:15-26) Laws against the seducer, occult practices, and forbidding the oppression of the powerless and the weak, including the stranger, the widow, the orphan, and the poor.

(22:27-30) Miscellaneous laws concerning respect for authority, gifts to the priests, and the prohibition of eating torn flesh (trefah).

(23:1-9) Laws of righteous behavior toward others.

(23:10-19) Laws concerning the Sabbatical year, Shabbat, and Festivals.

(23:20-33) An epilogue exhorting the Israelites to follow God's law, emphasizing the rewards they will receive if they do so.

(24:1-18) The Covenant is ratified at a formal ceremony of acceptance. Moses and the elders eat a meal and see a vision of God. Moses alone ascends the mountain to receive the stone tablets, remaining there for forty days and nights.

This Shabbat's Theme: "Should Israel Have a Constitution (a la U.S.A.)?"

Should there Be a Separation of Synagogue and State?

"These are the ordinances that you shall set before them" (Exodus 21:1)

  1. The juxtaposition of this Sidrah (dealing primarily with civil and tort law) with the Ten Commandments and the laws of the Altar provide a startling insight into Judaism. To God there is no realm of "religion" in the colloquial sense of the word. Most people think of religion as a matter of ritual and spirituality. Western man differentiates between Church and State. The Torah knows of no such distinction. (The Chumash, ArtScroll Series, p. 416)
  2. "These are the ordinances..." Why, in the Torah, was the subject of civil laws placed next to the (commandment to construct) the Altar? This is to teach you that the Sanhedrin (which decided cases of civil laws, etc.) had to be located next to the Altar (Rashi). Among the other nations, social laws - those between man and his fellow-man - have no religious basis, but are purely social and civilian, and are needed to ensure the welfare of the state. With us, though, the civil laws are commandments of God, and have the sanctity of the commandments. Just as the sacrifices are the worship of God in the Temple, the civil law is the worship of God in our daily lives. (Avnei Azel)
  3. Rabbi Menahem Mendl of Kotzk quoted Psalms 147:19-20: "He shows His word to Jacob, His statutes and judgments to Israel. He has not dealt so with any nation; and as for His judgments, they have not known them ". The Rabbi then asked: "Don't the Gentiles have laws as well? Of course they have laws, but the difference is that they do not praise God through these laws. Their civil laws do not bring them to praise the Creator".
  4. As judges we are neither Jew nor Gentile, neither Catholic nor agnostic. We owe equal attachment to the Constitution and are equally bound by our judicial obligations whether we derive our citizenship from the earliest or latest immigration to these shores..." (Felix Frankfurter, justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, quote from the American Jewish Year Book, 1966)
  5. Judaism cannot save Israel. Judaism can only save Judaism, and the souls of believing Jews. Israel will have to save Israel; and it can begin by recoiling from all forms of sacralization of politics, right and left, and affirming, for the sake of the Jewish state and the Jewish religion, a stringent separation of synagogue and state, warning the God-intoxicated radicals in its midst that their dangerous drunkenness will have to give way before the values of democracy and the requirements of the law. (Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of The New Republic, in a letter to the editor, The New York Times, November 23, 1995)
  6. Even though it was stated in the Proclamation of Independence -- read by David Ben-Gurion at the ceremony in which the State of Israel was declared -- that the Constituent Assembly, which turned into the First Knesset, would draft a constitution for Israel, this was not done due to differences of opinion with the religious parties. In place of a constitution, it was decided to legislate a series of basic laws, which in the future would together form the constitution. This task is now -- 46 years after the establishment of the State -- close to completion. (Israel Consulate Web site, Dec. 2000)
  7. We cannot put constitutions together like prefabricated hen houses. (Albert Blaustein, law professor whose expertise was in drafting constitutions for nations in transition. He believed that for a constitution to work, it must reflect a country's culture and history. Quote from his obituary, The New York Times, August 23, 1994)

"Sparks" for Discussion:

As in other nations, Israel is governed by a body of laws. We know that nations will tend to have their own characteristic way of formulating their manner of governance based upon their respective history and culture.

In this regard, Israel is at an important crossroad. Some would say that Israel, as a modern democratic country, should adopt the American-styled system of "Separation of Synagogue and State". Some would disagree, pointing out that Israel is the fulfillment of our religious destiny as a nation and that Israel should be governed by civil and Jewish religious law. Arguments in support of this latter point of view may be drawn from some of our quotations above.

What are your thoughts on this issue? Should Israel have a constitution? A Bill of Rights? Should there be a separation of Synagogue and State? Should there be a Chief Rabbinate and a Ministry of Religion? If yes, what role should they have? What about the Shabbat rules which are applied in certain municipalities?

What are your thoughts about the Knesset voting on a bill to ban women from wearing tallit/tefillin at the Kotel and reading from a Torah scroll there?

Recalling that each nation has its own unique character, how can Israel be a modern democratic country and still retain a strong religious commitment to its historic destiny as the "People of the Covenant"?

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