On the surface this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, is a disparate collection of laws, covering everything from what to do when a man steals another man’s ox to the proper lending of money to the spreading of gossip in a community. Scholars have long debated about what the central organizing principle of the portion might be, and various theories have been suggested over the years. I’ve always believed at the heart of the portion is a fundamental concern about an idea that we probably think of as modern, but an idea that the Torah was very interested in almost 3000 years ago, namely the meaning and application of a system of civil rights.
In the United States ‘civil rights’ is a loaded term, with a historical context and a modern application. Hearing the phrase many of us probably think back to the civil rights struggle of the African-American community in the 60s, a struggle that many would say is still going on today. In a contemporary and legal sense, civil rights is a broad category that includes freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and the right to vote among other things. Today we might say it like this: a person’s civil rights should guarantee that that person will not be discriminated against because of their race, gender, religion, age, physical limitation, national origin, and sexual orientation.
But three thousand years ago the Torah also had a sense of civil rights, probably for the first time in human history understanding the idea of individual rights in a way that would lead us to where we are today, to how we think about it today. First of all the Torah proposes that all human beings are created in the image of God. Jews and non-Jews, men and women, people of all nations. And what follows logically from that premise is that all human beings are deserving of being treated with equal dignity, that all human beings deserve to have the same rights. And in this week’s portion the Torah tries to apply that idea. It talks about orphans and widows, the stranger, the poor, criminals, and slaves. And in each case the Torah makes sure to tell us that although we might think this person wouldn’t enjoy the protection of the law, that in fact, they do – they have rights. Even a criminal. Even a non-Israelite. Even an orphan. Even a slave.
And it is sad, on one level, but also important to say, that we still need reminding of that message in modern times. We know that there are still slaves in the world, that the poor still struggle to protect themselves and to find dignity, we know that race and religion and sexual orientation and gender are all too often sources of discrimination and hostility and misunderstanding, even still today. We know it! These issues were a problem three thousand years ago for the Israelites, and they are still a problem for us today. And sometimes we begin to wonder – how long does it take to begin to get it right?
This week we saw two examples of getting it right on civil rights. One happened in the Jewish homeland, the state of Israel, and the other right here in our own backyard. Last night Rabbi Saroken spoke about the long ongoing struggle of the group called ‘the Women at the Wall.’ For years they have been working to create a space at the Western Wall in Jerusalem where woman can be treated as equals in terms of prayer and ritual. And if you heard Rabbi Saroken last night you certainly know that there have been ugly incidents over the years, to include verbal and even physical assaults on the women. But with strength and courage they have persistently and publicly insisted, time and again, that as women they deserve equal access to Judaism’s most sacred place, and equal access to Judaism’s most sacred rituals. And this week it was announced that the government of Israel has finally listened to their pleas. A section of the wall at the southern excavations will be expanded and opened up where women will be able to pray and read Torah, to put on tefillin and tallit if this is their custom, to sing in full voice in praise of God, and also where Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist Jews will be able to hold services where men and women sit together, where the rituals of that group can be enacted without fear of recrimination. So that is example number one of getting it right.
I said example number two was in our own back yard, and I meant that literally. I am referring to President Obama’s visit to the mosque in Catonsville this past Wednesday. Let me for a moment set some context for you regarding the President’s visit. You may recall that in 1790, President George Washington sent a letter to the Jewish congregation of Newport RI, thanking them for their kind wishes after his visit to their city. That letter contains one of the best known phrases in the history of this country, and perhaps the most famous expression of religious freedom and the role government has to play in maintaining it in of all time. Here is what Washington wrote:
“The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for giving to Mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens.”
To bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance. That phrase still rings true today, some 226 years after Washington wrote it. As Americans, and I think also as Jews, we immediately identity with what it means, and we understand intuitively that it is one of the primary values that has made this country great. But I will let you all in on a little secret today. George Washington did not create that phrase. It was a quote – he was quoting from a letter he had received just a few weeks earlier. And that letter was written by a Jew, Moses Seixas – the spiritual leader of that Rhode Island congregation.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that that phrase came originally from the mind of a Jew. On the one hand a Jew knows as well as anyone how precious the gift of religious freedom is, having lived for so many years without it. And on the other hand – a Jew’s spiritual and philosophical roots can be traced back to the Torah itself, and the Torah is the greatest expression of human freedom, dignity, and liberty found in the ancient world.
I think visiting a mosque was President Obama’s way of sending a letter like the one George Washington sent so long ago. The visit was an affirmation of the ideal expressed in that famous phrase – to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance – and it was a reminder to all of us that that value must remain one of America’s most important as we move forward into the future.
may we live that value in our lives, encourage it in our communities, and be thankful for this great nation where it resides