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Mishpatim 5771: Of Brothels and Laws
This post is also available as a podcast:
This week saw one of the biggest outbursts of widespread student civic engagement I've witnessed in my six years at Northwestern. It came about after word spread (apparently falsely, according to Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl) that the city would begin enforcement of an old law, still on the books but heretofore unenforced, that prohibits more than three unrelated people from sharing a dwelling. The Mayor refers to this as the "three unrelated rule," while the campus has dubbed it with the more interesting title, "the brothel law."
Students absorbed the message that the maximum size of apartments would now be limited to 3 roommates. Fears spread that available rooms would decrease, rents would increase, and students would have to move farther from campus. All of this spilled over in a 500-person town hall meeting on campus on Tuesday night, which, according to many students I've spoken with since, was a tense affair.
(As an important side note, to me this illustrates the potential power of reinstating the draft in America. If students can get this animated about where they will live and who they will live with, imagine if they had to deal with the question of fighting in a war. But I digress.)
What interests me in all of this, and what I find resonant as we approach Parshat Mishpatim this week, is what seems an ancillary issue but is nonetheless at the core of the debate: What does it mean to have a law on the books which is not enforced?
Parshat Mishpatim is, at its Hebrew name suggest, replete with laws, covering topics from how to treat slaves, to helping your enemy's donkey when it is overburdened, to not cooking milk and meat together. It is one of the places in the Torah in which the "eye for an eye" rule is stated. In places it is inspiringly clear, in others more murky and ambiguous. Nevertheless, it serves as the basis for a large corpus of Jewish law, and entire tractates of the Talmud.
Like the Evanston City code, or any legal code for that matter, Parshat Mishpatim contains laws that are no longer applied, or which we even find legally or morally problematic many years after they were written. The deep question has been, and remains, what do you do with texts that are no longer not on
ly irrelevant, but fundamentally problematic? Do you simply cut out the bad parts and leave behind a sanitized version, as Thomas Jefferson did with his Bible? Do you take the words seriously, and reconcile yourself to the notion that we are not in a position to act on these words, but that, in an ideal world, we would?
There other options between these extremes, and Jewish readers and thinkers have embraced them for millennia. The notion of an Oral Torah, given along with the Written Torah, was the ancient Rabbis' response to this tension, which was already present at their own time. By treating the written text as canonical, and by believing in the legitimacy and imperative for interpretation, the Rabbis of the Mishnah and the Talmud were able to massage the text and keep reading it, allowing the text to expand and breathe and live. The "eye for an eye"clause is a fine example: While the literal meaning of the Torah in Exodus 21:24 would seem to indicate that one should literally poke out the eye of one who poked out another's eye, early on in Jewish history the Rabbis interpreted this to mean that one pays the value of the eye in compensation; we don't actually poke out another's eye.
And yet the law remains on the books, as do other passages we might find problematic today. Because to excise those passages opens up a host of problems about authenticity and authority: Who gave us authority to edit the Bible? and the like. The very question at hand presumes that the words we say, the laws we enact, have to be completely aligned with our values, our interior sense of right and wrong. Anything less strikes us as hypocrisy, and that's what gives "religion" today a bad rap in the eyes of many.
But what the Rabbis realized is that long-term relationships, covenantal relationships--with people and with texts--are complex and dynamic. They have to be appoached with a sense of commitment, a sense of trust, a sense of faith. They do evolve and breathe and grow, if we let them. These relationships--and the people and texts within them--evolve over time with one another. They are organic, not mechanical. The language of replacing parts or reprogramming, of rewriting legislation, doesn't apply nearly as well to these systems as does the language of evolution and adaptation, growth and decay, trust and love.
Which brings us back to Evanston and the students of Northwestern. An important theme that seemed to be at play in this whole episode was the missing relationship between the students of Evanston and the city of Evanston. Without relationship, there can be no trust and no dialogue. And, guess what: the president of the university, who has built a strong relationship with the mayor, was able to solve the problem within 24 hours of the town hall meeting. My guess is that trust and commitment, and the salvific effect they have on communication, played an important role.
Our relationships with text, with living texts like the Torah or our own laws, are like our relationships with people. They require time and tending, trust and communication. If we nurture those relationships, we will be richer and healthier for it.