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Convergence of Spirituality and the Law: The Interface of Yitro and Mishpatim I. Richard Axel, whose fundamental work mapping the neural networks responsible for processing olfactory stimuli was recognized with the 2004 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine, was once asked something of a personal question. Given Dr. Axels intricate knowledge of the scientiIic mechanisms underlying smell, Axels interlocutor wondered, could he still enjoy, on a purely aesthetic level, going into a bakery and inhaling the delightful aromas wafting from warm, freshly baked pastries? On the one hand, the question was completely understandable, whilst, simultaneously, it was highly revealing of an unfortunate bias characteristic of particular modes of contemporary thought; the presumed antithesis of inspired aesthetic appreciation and precise mathematical knowledge. In religious communities, the analogue of this alleged dichotomy is one often posed between spirituality, on the one hand, and legalistic precision, on the other. Sociologically, this type of schismatic polarization may increasingly have become the norm; sadly, we all know learned halakhists who, to one degree or another, dismiss less quantiIiable yet profound feelings and expressions of spirituality in others, and, conversely, committed spiritualists and social justice advocates who embrace universalistic expressions of spirituality and prayer but demean not only observance of particular halakhot, but, more to the point, disparage tenacious legalism more generally as a constricting, or worse, perhaps even regressed, mode of existence. The overarching structure of these contiguous sedrot, Yitro and Mishaptim, speaks precisely to this point, jointly comprising a stirring vision for the synergistic relationship between law and spirituality. Revelation at Sinai, Iirst presented in Yitro, constituted not only the telos of all of creation itself, but a singular moment of spiritual elevation and transcendence as well1. From this spiritual acme, the Torah pivots and drives us headlong to the legal thickets of this weeks Sedra, Mishpatim, which contains some Iifty-three commandments (according to the count of the Sefer Ha-Chinukh) ranging from the classical sections of the bondsman, custodian, torts and creditor, to the Sabbatical year and the festivals, and much in between. Finally, in the coda of Mishpatim, the Torah returns us to the revelation at Sinai, climaxing with Moshes dramatic ascent into the cloud hovering atop the mountain. The point is inescapable; as sincere as our initial feeling of elevation evoked during our nave, Iirst encounter with Sinai was, back in Yitro, it utterly pales in comparison to what we can and do experience the second time around, now that we know the substance of the mishpatim. Systematic and rigorous knowledge of the halakha does not inhibit spirituality, but, on the contrary, is conditio sine qua non for its existence, and represents the single greatest catalyst for its subsequent enhancement. For us, when it comes to what others may perceive as a fork in the road, where one .1. ) :(. ' ,

must chart a course of either Iidelity to the halakhah or an abiding sense of profound spirituality, we cannot choose, nor do we feel that there is any need to do so. We assert that the most profound love of the Torah and He who bestowed it upon us, is indeed, directly proportional to our knowledge; not merely of its highways and interstates, as it were, but, its nooks and crannies as well. As Richard Axel went on to reply, having mapped the transduction pathways associated with olfactory processing made him enjoy trips to the bakery not less, but that much more. II Perhaps the synthetic view of Yitro and Mishpatim is most famously buttressed by the conjunctive 'vav' which opens the Sedra. Rashi, citing the Tanchumah, notes that this is indeed the precise function of the 'vav' in question, to connect what might otherwise have been perceived as disjunctive; what is being fused is not just one set of laws to another, but far more signiIicantly, the alleged space between the rapturous mode of religious experience which reached its most heightened form under the canopy of Sinai, and the techincal-legal framework of Mishpatim.

Moreover, Rashi goes on to cite a seemingly unrelated statement of Chazal, which derives, on the basis of the juxtaposition of the judicial framework of Mishpatim and the concluding verse of Yitro, featuring the altar, that the rightful location of the Sanhedrin is in the proximity of the altar. It seems to me that the second half of Rashi is merely an extension of the first. The need to integrate the respective roles of the Sanhedrin and the ritual sphere of the altar as complementary dimensions of the religious experience is yet another way of formulating the imperative of reconciling the transcendatal-emotional dimension of religious experience with the legal-technical one. The presence of the judicial luminaries2 of Jewish society casting their shadow, both figuratively and literally, over the altar, has a grounding and restraining influence on what the modality of religious experience symbolized by the altar can otherwise become; an orgiastic, hedonic cult.3 It was precisely this concern which Moshe articulated on his ascent to the
2. Presumably, this is also a possible rationale for the dual character of the priesthood; ( . ) :The priest is not merely the overseer of the cultic-sacrificial rite, but, first and foremost, jurist and educator. One hopes that combining, somewhat counterintuitively, the roles of jurist and ritualist exerts a legalistic impact on the sacrificial realm. 3. The Torah itself explicitly articulated its concern regarding the encroachment of any human sexuality into the sphere of the altar, even in relatively innocuous form; (. ) :

mountain following Revelation itself, as he attempted to fortify the elders and establish the authoritative legal presence of Aharon and Chur4. Sadly, the center could not hold, and the cult of the Golden Calf was born in the absence of the legal giant, Moshe Rabbenu. The three thousand casualties of that particular incident would not be either the most illustrious, nor the last, victims of passional religious activity centered on the sacrificial cult, unfettered by the strictures and boundaries of the norm; Nadav and Avihu's demise at the very moment that the sacrificial rite was being instituted stands as a an eternal monument of the dangers inherent in the sacrificial cult, when legal precision, constricting in essence, is disregarded. It is not for naught that R. Eliezer asserted that Nadav and Avihu's spiritual deviance as having been judicial lese-majeste, literally trampling the procedures and protocols of the legal-technical framework.5 The ultimate subordination of the cultic realm to the judicial is most powerfully expressed by the command to remove the murderer from the refuge he seeks at the altar.6 The transcendent realm of Divine cleavage afforded by the altar can never serve as an escapist portal for those who would disregard the most basic elements of legal-technical life, represented, in extremis, of course, by the crime of murder. The prospects for the altar to serve as a vehicle for genuine spiritual elevation, somewhat ironically, though certainly not paradoxically, rest on its remaining literally tethered to the legal, halakhic norm.7

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The prohibition of offering sacrifices on an altar suspended above the ground on stilts ( ) :, ' : might be interpreted as symbolic of this ideal. The altar cannot serve its function if its foundation does not stand rooted in the terra rma of the concrete and the real. As a counterexample, Jacob's ladder comes to mind, with its rootedness in the concrete, and perhaps only its rootedness, one imagines, enabling it to reach soaring heights, .)